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Ultimatum: The Westlake Review and World Domination–Greenland Edition

Screenshot_2019-08-23 Stats ‹ The Westlake Review — WordPress com

 

It was just a bit over three years ago I informed you all that my blog stats, so helpfully supplied by WordPress (how could I ever have considered Blogger?)  indicated that I’d gotten hits from a hundred different countries, each represented by its own flag. I am here today to inform you the flag count is now 165.  I think.  I don’t feel like recounting.

Okay, in many cases we’re not talking countries so much as regions.  Dependencies, semi-autonomous domains, remote and nebulously affiliated territories (the kind you might light out for, maybe).

Often islands.  Really tiny islands, the kind Gilligan & Co. might find a tad confining, however entertaining the guest stars might be.  Like for example, Anguilla.  Be pretty bad if I couldn’t get Anguilla, since Westlake wrote one of the very few books in all history about it, but thing is, there’s not even 15,000 people living there, and they have lives, you know.  The odds of anyone with a life ever learning of this blog’s (or any blog’s) existence–not great.  But I’ve had 23 visits from Anguilla.  An independent-minded dependency of the UK, which is mindful of Anguilla in much the same way a dog is mindful of a flea, but fleas don’t build good boats like Anguilla does.  (And it better keep building them.)

Guernsey.  After which I would assume the cow is named.  A self-governing crown dependency, one of the Channel Islands, though what they are channeling I could not possibly say.  Two visits from them, two from Jersey, and what is it with the Channel Islands and cows?  Four from the Isle of Man, which makes do with a tail-less cat.

Do you sell Seychelles by the seashore?  I’ve had 35 visits from that now-independent member of the Commonwealth and various other international groupings, the inner workings of which most of us are a bit vague about.  That’s a lot of islands all bunched together, and very well they’re doing at present, but sea levels are rising, as the Dutch will tell you.  (513 visits from the Netherlands, which currently administers another sometimes-visitor here, Curacao.)

Two visits from the Cayman Islands, from whence our rescue mutt came, and to whence what ought to be our tax revenue goes.  A sort of import-export arrangement, you might say.   But the dog worked out great.

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(This is Burren.  She is a very good girl.  Remember the name, it figures into the scheme me and J.C. Taylor cooked up over some bourbon.)

The Aland Islands, believe it or not, are not to be found in any George R.R. Martin novel yet published, but are to be found in the Baltic, all 6,700 or so, where they are yet another self-governing dependency, this time of Finland.  Even though they mainly speak Swedish.  Don’t even ask.  Anyway, they only came here once.  I think I was out of vodka that day.  Sorry guys.

So as you can see, I now control most of the known world, as well the parts nobody knows.  Not bragging or anything, but take a gander at the map up top.  Still a bit of mopping up do in Africa and Asia (Little Rocket Man is proving a minor obstacle on the Korean peninsula), but by and large, my suzerainty is achieved.  If only Alexander the Great had run a blog.  (He didn’t, right?)  All significant land masses are now claimed for Fred-onia.  Save one.

Yeah.  That one.  You see where I’m going with this.

Greenland, what is your problem with me?  Denmark, your mother country (kind of), came along like a lamb.  1,563 visits–#6 on my hit parade.  More than Australia, which is a continent (or so it claims).  And yet you remain this vast empty space on my map.  Not.  One.  Visit.  (And you never write either.)

Yes, I understand you’re mostly frozen wasteland, now rapidly turning into melting wasteland, but that is neither here nor there.  Resistance, as they say, is futile.  You shall be assimilated.  But by whom?   Ah, there’s the question.  Here is one potential answer–

shopping

Don’t look at me, wasn’t my idea.  This reality’s Max Fairbanks has fixed his covetous eye upon you, for reasons future historians and psychiatrists shall long debate, and never mind what that nice lady in Copenhagen says.  How many divisions does she have?  That many?  Well, she needs them all to keep an eye on the Shirtless One, who just snatched up The Crimea (of all things) with no regard whatsoever for historical anachronism.  Forward into the Valley of Dumb ride the 56,000–unless something saves you.  But what?

Democracy, you say?  The sound even-tempered reliable judgment of the American voter?  I somehow feel no editorial comment is needed here. Anyway, that’s over 15 months off.  He could annex you between the election and the inauguration.  Probably put John Bolton in charge, just so he doesn’t have to look at that mustache anymore.  (You have walruses there, right?  Like that, but worse.)

No, my tiny reindeer.  What you need is John Dortmunder.  (And maybe Parker for some of the wetwork.)   You need The Westlake Review.  I hereby offer you sanctuary beneath my vaulted ceiling.  (Notre Dame being presently indisposed.)

And if you accept my gracious offer, as indeed you must, I shall appoint Burren (see above) as your territorial governor.  I mean, she won’t live there, obviously.  But she shall speak eloquently for your interests in the world community.  And never once use the word “huge.”   (Also, no pussy-grabbing.  She’s a bit wary of cats.)  An islander  herself, please recall.  She’ll get you.

The choice is yours, Greenland.  My benevolent sway.  Or–

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And if you think it’s less than credible for some threadbare blogger to make such an offer of protection–you guys get the news where you are, right?  What does ‘credible’ even mean anymore?

And the best thing about my offer is, you don’t even have to formally agree to it.  You just have to visit this blog and read about it.  Even once.  And Greenland will no longer be a white empty space on my map, as of course it already is on most other maps.  And in reality.  Though global warming will fix that.  As Andy Kelp predicted.  I think I’ll put him in charge of your Ministry of Nature and Environment.  Maybe don’t leave any valuables there.  Or park any vehicles with MD plates outside.  Welcome to the family.   God save us, every one.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Under An English Heaven

Review: Get Real, Part Last

summer

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.  A book we read as children, then comprehend (maybe) as adults.  

“John,” Kelp said, “the next time there’s gonna be money in that place it’s gonna be our money, from England. You wanna go steal your own money?”

“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said, “is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There’s no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it’s yours because you took it.”

“Basically, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “I agree with you. But there’s an extra little spin on it this time.”

“Because it’s fun,” said the one-note kid.

“Also,” Tiny said, “I agree with Kelp. I want Josie to see this thing. I want to tell you, Dortmunder, I’m impressed by every one of us, and that’s also you. I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them.”

Dortmunder sat back, appalled. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he said. “You people have completely forgot who and what you are. You want to go down to that place, day after day, and pretend to be, pretend to be I don’t even know what.”

“Ourselves,” Kelp said.

“You don’t have to pretend to be yourself,” Dortmunder said. “You are yourself.”

“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.

From a book children probably should not read, though they might also think it was fun.

I love John Dortmunder.

I mean, not that way.  I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea here.  Well, nobody’s getting the wrong idea here.  And I’m hardly alone in this.  My blog stats assure me that a whole lot of people out there love this thieving schmuck.

Parker, Westlake’s other most popular series protagonist, is not loved.  Nor does he give a damn if he is or not.  Respect, mingled with envy, would be the default reaction to him.  Mitch Tobin, who had a much shorter run, you empathize with, admire his abstracted acuity–he’s too morose and abrasive to be lovable.

Many other of Westlake’s fictive foils and felons we’ve looked at over the past few years come to mind, vivid memories come with them, but how many would you want to sip beer or bourbon with?  We’re talking about a yarn spinner who gave the world many a diverting rogue, but Dortmunder is Westlake’s beloved rogue.

And it seems reasonable to say, as many have, that this is because he’s the one who most closely resembles his creator–but is that true?  Westlake was, to all accounts, a warm witty winning fellow in real life, not some crusty curmudgeon.   You watch the few bits of video there are of him online, you see the sunny side, more often than not.  Then again, he knew he had a camera on him when he gave those interviews.

I watched his friends talk about him at The Mysterious Bookstore, at that event held to commemorate the release of The Getaway Car.  No doubt they knew many sides to the man, but the one that came foremost in their thoughts when he was gone was not some gloomy gus, peddling hard luck stories.  Dortmunder is but one surly surrogate for Westlake’s many-faceted persona–it had taken him a lifetime to cover them all.  (Assuming he didn’t have a few more tucked in his back pocket, in case of a quick getaway.)

Much as Dortmunder came after Parker, after Tobin, after Grofield, after Levine, after the first six ‘Nephew’ books, he still has a certain belated primacy.  Sure though I am that most of Westlake’s best novels are not Dortmunders–that if you only know him through Dortmunder, you don’t know him at all–it’s still altogether fitting we finish here.  With a book that is philosophy as much as fiction.

One might argue it’s more successful as philosophy.  True of most of the books he completed in the 21st century.  Like many a great before him, he had outlived his era–to a certain extent, his inspiration went with it.  He must have known that.  Nor was this such a new sensation.  He’d been out of sync with the times for most of his life.  Easier to cope with when you’re young; a trial at any age. The Kelp in him was waning, as Dortmunder waxed prolific.

But there are compensations.  To stand just outside the times you live in can enhance your perspective on them.  You may even get an inkling of things yet to come.  And try–in futility, most often–to sound a warning.  So just once more, let’s listen to what the man has to tell us.

All that’s really left to cover in this book is the most important aspect of it–which is to say, the work.  The gang is doing two jobs here–one is the job they always do, which is to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be, take stuff they’re not supposed to take, and get back out again without getting caught.

The other job is to pretend to do all that, on camera, to entertain the masses–which, let’s remember, is precisely what they’ve been doing all the time we’ve known them.  We’ve even had multiple filmed versions of them in the past, none of which were at all satisfactory–the Dortmunder of the movies is not Dortmunder at all. Turn a camera on him, he fades away to nothing.  Must that always be true?  I could not say.

But leaving that aside, it’s fair to say that what Doug Fairkeep is doing with them now is, in a sense, the same thing Westlake has been doing with them since 1970. And yet, not the same at all.

So what’s different?  This time they know about it.  I started off with Bishop Berkeley–to be is to be perceived–but I put more stock in The Hawthorne Effect (no relation to Nathaniel), as laid out by Henry A. Landsberger.  To be perceived–while being aware of it–is to be something other than what you were before.  Self-awareness is one thing.  Self-consciousness quite another.

And self-consciousness occurs when you know you’re being watched.  Most of all when you’re playing to a camera.  Playing yourself.  Instead of just being yourself.  Which was hard enough to begin with.

To Donald Westlake, identity is the central element in life, and the central element in identity, for him at least, was work.  What you do shapes everything about you.  He resisted all his life the temptation to take a teaching job when writing gigs were scarce, revenues deficient, because he knew that would change him.

Many if not most of us have jobs that really are just swapping our time and labor for money, but to the extent we’re doing something meaningful to us, we become our jobs.  If not, then we have to seek meaning and identity elsewhere.  (Like on the internet. Uh-oh.)  But some people, against all odds, find or just plain invent jobs that suit them right down to the proverbial T.

And what do reality TV shows about people doing their quirky individualistic jobs do? They corrupt that.  Because all of a sudden, your actual job becomes secondary to the metatextual job of explaining your job while you’re in the process of doing it.  Dramatizing your workplace relationships to the point where you don’t know where the drama ends and the relationship begins.  The image of you doing the job becomes more important than the job itself.  Work is no longer done for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being seen doing it.  To be is to be perceived.

This is normal for entertainers, of course.  That is their work, to be seen working (more true for a stand-up comedian than a third violinist in an orchestra–and who is more likely to have severe personality issues?)  But how about a writer?   Writers entertain (hopefully), but tend to do their jobs in private.

Harlan Ellison challenged that perception–I remember watching him write a short story in the window of a 5th Ave. bookstore.  B. Dalton’s I think–hard to remember–can’t remember the story either.  I know it was 1981, because it was right after the first space shuttle landing, and I asked him about it at the Q&A afterwards–he wasn’t impressed.  Not much of a techie, is Mr. Ellison.

If somebody had asked him to comment on the work he was doing, while he was doing it, tried to turn his work on a piece of fiction into a piece of docu-fiction itself, I’m guessing that somebody would have had a fat lip shortly afterwards.

Ellison’s point was that he could get so deeply into what he was doing, it didn’t matter that he was being eyeballed by hundreds while he did it.  He didn’t need an ivory tower, because his mind was the tower.  Few can claim to be that focused.

Westlake and Ellison respected each other, their backgrounds and work habits were not too dissimilar, but I don’t think you could have gotten Westlake into one of those bookstore windows without pointing a gun at him.  Maybe not even then.  In Westlake’s mind, to be is to be.  To be perceived–incompletely, and too often inaccurately–an unfortunate side effect of being.

To bring another genre writer into the discussion, perhaps you are only truly yourself when nobody can see you?

I was not kidding when I said this book is more about philosophizing than storytelling, and so has the review been, but the story is still interesting.  As they’ve been learning how to play themselves on TV, the Dortmunder Gang have been trying to solve the mystery of Combined Tool.  They believe there is cash stored there for illegal pay-offs to foreign companies.  They’re quite right to think so, as we learn from discussions between Doug Fairkeep and Babe Tuck, when the gang isn’t present.

Doug himself learned about the money a while back when he had to use his status as a TV producer to help a man named Muller, a German producer who had dealings with Get Real’s corporate overlords, get past a police search at the Third Ave. corporate headquarters, with half a million dollars.  Doug told the cops it was fake money for a show, and they believed him.  That’s why, when Dortmunder asked him if there was any cash they could steal, he hesitated a moment before responding in the negative.

So part of the book is the gang going back there, again and again, after closing time. Looking for a way into Combined Tool, which has a suspiciously good alarm system.  As heists go, this is first-rate material–with Andy Kelp doing most of the heavy lifting.

Andy was never considered a first-rate lock man, but seems he’s been upgrading his skills–and given his fascination with electronics and computers, his love of figuring out how they work, how to turn them to his advantage, this makes sense. The more security systems rely on newfangled tech, the better he likes it.  (Also, there isn’t really time to deal with the eccentricities of a Wally Whistler, or a Wilbur Howey.)

Dortmunder, by contrast, could never follow this kind of thing.  He can snip a few wires in an alarm system, but his skills are more rooted in the concrete.  He’s the planner, who works out the general logistics, not the techie stuff.  I’d say he’s Jobs to Kelp’s Woz, but the dynamic isn’t the same.  Usually somebody comes to him with an idea, then he figures out how to make it work.  There is no Jobs, no CEO.  Because this isn’t a company, but a collective of freelancers.  An assembly of autodidacts, if you prefer.

It’s commented here that he’s not the leader of the gang–there is no leader. Whoever has the skill set best suited to the given moment takes the lead, and the others follow.  Creative anarchism.  (Also rather similar to the way some field biologists now think a wolf pack operates).  And because all they care about is getting the answer to their problem–ie, the loot–they’ll listen to anyone who has a good idea.  No seniority system, which has been working out great for Judson.

Their task is complicated greatly by the need to steal from their employers without their employers knowing it.  Not just to get in and back out again, but to do it without leaving a trace, tripping any wires.  So night after night, they go in, poke around, snip wires, and every night they get a bit closer.  Here’s just one exchange from that process.  (Chosen because it demonstrates that Kelp quite certainly does not think of Dortmunder as the boss of him, for all he’s been promoting him like an over-assiduous talent agent all these years).  Kindle, allow me one last outrageously long quote.

“Wires,” decided Kelp.

“You’re right.”

They both had flashlights out now, shining them on the walls and ceiling. Kelp said, “Electricity. Phone. Cable. Security. A cluster of wires.”

Dortmunder pointed his light at the stone side wall of the elevator space. “They gotta do surface-mount. You can’t bury wires in a stone wall. See, like that.” And his light shone on a gray metal duct, an inch square, coming down from above. “That’s where they put in those cameras, to screw us outta the storage space.” “

Well, let’s see.” Kelp turned the other way, looking at the side wall where it came close to the front of the building. “There we go.”

His light showed another gray duct, a little larger, coming out of that side wall, very low and almost to the front. The duct emerged, made a left turn to go downward, then another left and headed off toward the door they’d come in.

Kelp called, “Tiny! You see that duct? I’m shining the light on it.”

“I got it.”

“Find where it goes, I’ll be right down.”

Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”

“Same as last time. Comere.”

They went over to the impregnable door, and Kelp withdrew from one of the rear pockets of his jacket the stethoscope and earphone gizmo. As Dortmunder watched, he bent to the door, listening here, listening there, then saying, “Hah.”

“You got it.”

“We know the thing has to be alarmed,” Kelp said, “and here it is. Only this time I want it to stop.”

“Okay.”

“Give me a couple minutes to get set,” Kelp said, “then you listen, and you tell me when it switches off.” He tapped a fingertip on the appropriate spot on the door. “Right there.”

“Done.”

Kelp went away down the ladder, and Dortmunder experimentally listened to the door’s faint hum for a minute, then, tiring of that, walked around in this blank, supremely uninteresting area until Kelp, from far away at the ground floor rear, yelled, “John!” “

Yar!”

“Start listening!”

“You got it.” Bending to his work, Dortmunder listened through the gizmo to the humming of the door. It was a very soothing kind of hum, really, especially when you positioned yourself so your back could be comfortable. It was a non-threatening hum, an encouraging hum, faint but unending, assuring you that everything was going to be all right, all your troubles were over, you’d just sail along now on the calm sea of this hum, no nasty sur—

“JOHN! WHAT THE HELL’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”

The scream, about an inch from his non-gizmo ear, was so loud and unexpected he drove his head into the door to get away from it, and the door bounced his head back into the scream with a new ache in it. Staring upward, he saw what appeared to be Kelp’s evil twin, face twisted into a Kabuki mask of rage. “What? What?”

“Can’t you hear anything?”

“The hum.” Dortmunder straightened, pulled the earphone out of his unassaulted ear, assembled the tatters of his dignity about himself, and said, “You wanted me to listen to the hum, I listened to the hum.”

Once Kelp realizes the hum never stopped (meaning he hasn’t figured out the alarm) he apologizes.  Dortmunder accepts.  Graciously, if a bit stiffly.

Why is this work so good to watch?  Because they don’t know we’re watching them, and are therefore living and working and dealing with their personality clashes and minor misunderstandings entirely in the moment.  This, in a nutshell, is fiction.  (And life, or it ought to be.)

Reality TV, in a nutshell, is a hybrid of reality and fiction, where we tell ourselves “This is more interesting because it’s really happening” but then we stop and think “But it’s less interesting because they know we’re watching them, so nobody is being real–and it’s still basically scripted.  There’s a strict formula they have to follow, because these people don’t dare be 100% themselves in front of an audience of millions.  They’re just playing cutesy versions of themselves. It’s a lot more predictable than fiction.”

I guess you could argue that there are formulas we follow in unscripted reality as well, but that’s because we’re creatures of habit, slaves to routine–patterns from which we seek temporary escape.  Great fiction provides that escape, distills reality, ferments it, transforms it into something revelatory.

Documentaries do that in a different way, simpler, more direct–but perhaps more deceptive as well (all the way back to Robert Flaherty).  Reality TV takes both approaches, mashes them together, and corrupts them to make half-hour blocks of entertainment to sell soap.  But we watch it.  Because it’s fun!  Vérité be damned, we crave variety.

(And let it be said, at least the people on the better Reality TV shows aren’t all airbrushed airhead aquiline actors, seemingly cultivated in tanks in top secret studio-owned warehouses. Yeah, talking about you, Matt Damon.  Won’t even mention Keanu.  Too obvious.  Reality TV is our punishment for allowing fiction, especially in its filmed variant, to be drained not just of reality, but humanity.  The corporations are to blame for both poisons, but so are we for lapping them up.)

The gang isn’t going to be watching these shows–but they can’t very well help watching themselves, the daily rushes, once they’re the subject.  They’re trained how to play to the camera, how to hit their marks, how to present themselves to the world, and it starts out as just a way to be in that building so as to pillage it, and failing in that, at least to get their 20g a man payout.

And see, the people making this show around them are solid pros  in their own field–and what’s their job?  To make you look good doing your job.  Which makes them look good at their jobs.  One hand jacking off the other.   Which doesn’t even make any sense, but there you are.

The exchange you see up top is Dortmunder, tied to the mast you might say, berating his fellow sailors for falling under this siren’s spell.  This is not who they are.  If there was ever a profession that positively requires the complete absence of cameras and microphones–to the point of disabling them where they are found–it is theirs. For them, to be is not to be perceived.  To be perceived is to shortly afterwards be perceiving iron bars, bad food, and undesirable neighbors for ten to twenty.

They shouldn’t be pretending to take stuff that isn’t theirs to get paid by some dodgy foreign production company (as it happens, Mr. Muller’s company).  They should be taking what’s rightfully theirs, theirs because they took it.  That’s how they get real.

They’re not convinced the show is corrupting them, but he still strikes that professional chord in each–this acting thing is a nice diversion and all.  It’s not what they do.  Maybe there’s money waiting for them in Combined Tool and maybe there isn’t, but either way, they gots to know.  To thine own self be true.

Then comes the whole thing with Babe Tuck accusing them of stealing cars that Murch actually stole without telling them, and they walk out in a  huff, because really.  Doug seeks them out at the real OJ, where all the usual hijinks are transpiring, without any cameras to record them for posterity.

The regulars discuss this new scam they’ve been hearing about called ‘the internet.’  You have to buy some kind of adding machine to use it.  There’s also an English-deficient tourist, who speaks in keyboard symbols, who wants to exchange some strange foreign currency for beer, and won’t believe Rollo when he says they only speak dollars.  Tiny finally tells the guy “What you want to do is, when in Rome, don’t be Greek.”  Well, maybe if it’s a diner.

The regulars are now asking themselves if while you’re looking at the internet, it looks back at you.  Kelp, for what I think is the first and only time in the series weighs in, telling what is for him a cautionary tale of a woman who worked for the Apple Store, whose computer was stolen, but she knew how to track it down in cyberspace, and then she used it to take pictures of the people who stole it, and then she called the cops.  Andy says the moral of that story is never commit a crime anywhere near the internet.  Um–but isn’t the internet everywhere?  Andy?  Oh never mind, they’re back into the backroom.  The internet is definitely not there.

But Doug is, and that’s even worse.  He doesn’t belong in the real OJ.  They shut the door in his face.  But he persists.  The corporate overlords love the new heist show.  They want to go ahead with it.  Please, please come back!  They’re kind of meh about it.  The kid says they already cast a professional actor as one of the gang, to spy on them–why not cast the whole gang that way?  Doug says that’s not how reality works.  John says “Why not?  How real is reality anyway?”  That is the question, all right.

But they come back.  Because money.  And before long, even Dortmunder is starting to discuss with Kelp about how natural and fluid they are on camera.  Not like Babe Tuck, who did a bit part in one scene.  Very stiff.  But that’s okay, they can carry him.  They’re professionals.  They better pull this job fast, before it pulls them.

So they pull the job.  The cash is there, just like they thought.  So is an irate Asian man with a Glock, but Kelp and a nine inch cast iron skillet attend to that.  Philosophy aside, reality still hurts when you get hit upside the head with it.  Leaves a bump that feels pretty real as well when you wake up.

To Dortmunder (and not the one note kid, whose deductive skills fail him this time) goes the honor of finding the hidey-hole in this apartment inside Combined Tool–a compartment behind a dishwasher in the kitchen.  This almost makes up for the time he nearly crippled himself hiding in a dishwasher in Good Behavior, and they found him anyway.  I think the moral here is that dishwashers are not good hiding places.

There’s a ton of cash in there.  Stacked in such a haphazard way as to make clear that not even the people who put it there know how much there is.  The idea is, their foreign guests (like the Asian guy) stay the night there, take what they came for, then go back home.  The pile gets diminished, then replenished, then diminished again.  They can’t keep accounts, get receipts, because it’s black money.

So not only can’t the Get Real people report it stolen, they won’t even know that it was.  They’ll just assume somebody (they will, of course, suspect Dortmunder & Co., but what of it?) broke in, clobbered their guest, looked around for the money, didn’t find it, left.  Because the gang didn’t take all of the cash, just a lot of it.  $162,450, is the final count–$32,490 for each string member.

“I begin to believe,” Dortmunder said, “that a jinx that has dogged my days for a long long time has finally broken.”  He smiles.  And we frown–hasn’t he had bigger scores in the past?   The Avalon Bank Tower heist.  The epic fleecing of Max Fairbanks. Why is this better?  Because it’s repeatable.  They can keep going back for more.   As long as they work there, they’ve got the perfect alibi to really work there.

Except they don’t work there anymore.  Corporate moves in mysterious ways.  Monopole loved the show–sent it up to the next rung in the ladder–who loved it too–so they sent it up to TUI–who said it glorified criminals.  They can’t be associated with crime!

(Final sidebar: This came up in the comments section last time, might as well mention it again.  Westlake was still thinking about Trump.  Who had recently started his own reality show about what he did at work, which seemed to consist mainly of insulting and firing people, then rehiring them, then insulting and firing them again, and there was some other stuff he did off-camera, when he was really being real. I doubt Westlake was a regular viewer, but he knew about it.

Doug Fairkeep’s name is too similar to that of Max Fairbanks to be a coincidence, and he lives in a Trump apartment building.  TUI, Fairbanks’ company, is one of the owners of Get Real.  And it’s TUI that cancels the show.  I don’t think we need grieve too much that Mr. Westlake didn’t make it to 2016.  Much as his insights may be missed.)

So with The Stand now canceled, and The Gang’s All Here (with all its variant titles) stillborn, it’s time to just fold the Get Real production tent.  Only Doug and Babe keep their jobs.  Everybody else is fired.  The show is canceled.  Shut it down.

Just in time, too.  They’re filming a scene for the show when Babe comes with the good bad news.  Dortmunder’s self-consciousness in front of the camera has vanished, and he’s talking in clichés, like an off-the-rack TV crook.  “There’s too much tunnel traffic around that place.  You can’t keep a getaway car hanging around there.”

Like himself, but not himself.  Just like the others.  They’re being digested whole in Leviathan’s belly.  Then it vomits them out again, like the whale in Pinocchio.  Bit off more than you could chew this time, eh tough guy?  You can dish it out but you can’t take it!

Marcy is so happy.  This is her script they’re reading, that nobody is allowed to call a script, and she’s a real writer now, though she can’t call herself that on her resumé.  The gang really likes her, she’s worked hard to create characters for them to play.  Then Babe comes in, with orders from Corporate, and she’s canned.  Now she’s an unemployed–um–whatever it was.

Dortmunder and the gang get paid off–only half what they were promised, but that’s only fair, since they didn’t finish filming season one.  10k a hood, I mean head.  Plus they got some money upfront.  Plus Stan is going to take a lot more cars from that garage (Max will be so proud).  Plus they got the money from the dishwasher.  Plus they’re going to go back next week and clean it out.  (Perhaps Mr. Westlake’s final implicit pun.)

“This is a little too much like wages,” Dortmunder thinks.  Already snapping back to his old self.  You can talk about that irksome Irishman Bishop Berkeley all you like, but it was that savage Scotsman, David Hume, who said that however impossible it may be to prove that reality is real, it’s such a damned persuasive, pervasive, and downright invasive thing, going on all the time, all around you, whether you notice or not (and no commercials!) that after a while (if you’re not stark raving mad), you just kind of give in and go along with it.  It’s a living.  We suppose.

Dortmunder and Kelp leave the building together, and they see Marcy, looking disconsolate.  Dortmunder feels bad for her.  She was a good writer, whether they called her that or not.  She did her best to help them, mere hireling that she was–she had something.  Maybe they could help her, give her some of their cash.  “There’s an idea,” says Kelp.  He doesn’t stop walking.  Disappears around the corner.  Dortmunder hesitates, just a moment, then says “Oh, all right” and follows him.

John, stop.  Wait.  Come back, John.  Please come back.  You can’t leave us.  We love you. John?

Gone.

Just like the man who first made him real.  I guess, if you consider Dortmunder the Ultimate Nephew, that would make Westlake his Uncle–right?  He modeled Dortmunder after an earlier (and much grimmer) toy in his workshop, but the more the craftsman worked on his new toy, the more he became his own thing, his own reality, his own unique expression of things no other character in all of fiction could ever say quite the same way.

But if you’ve read Margery Williams’ forty-four page masterpiece, you know that being real doesn’t happen all at once.  The Velveteen Rabbit thinks he’s real when the boy who loves him says that he is, but that’s just the first stage.  There still has to be a fairy in the mix to complete the nursery magic, and send him out to play with the other rabbits.  And that’s us, get it?  We’re the fairies.  Don’t get wise, I’m being real here.

Fictional characters, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, from Odysseus to the Odd Couple, from Micawber to McGuyver, from Hamlet to Homer (woo-hoo!), from Beowulf to Babe (the other one), all began in the minds of creators (sometimes many), who loved them, and thereby imbued them with pieces of their souls–but it’s when that character is appreciated by audiences for generations after the creator is gone, that he/she/it gains lasting reality.  Transcendent reality.  And once you’re real like that, you can never be unreal again.  (I’m not holding out much hope for McGuyver, but maybe he can rig something out of a paper clip and some chewing gum that’ll work just as well).

Dortmunder, along with Westlake’s other creations, is still in the early stages of that long process of becoming.  I like to think I’ve hastened it along with this blog, if just in a small way.  The best way is to read the books.  Over and over.  Until the pages are tattered and stained and dog-eared, and the spine is broken, and the cover is coming loose, and this doesn’t really work with an ebook, does it?  Which is what I re-read Get Real on.  Well, let it get stained and tattered in your mind.  And share it with someone who loves you.  Then you’ll be real too.

Anyway, the next book in our queue is–what?  No more?  Well then.  Guess I’d best be headed around the corner myself.  I appreciate you guys coming here to read all this crap I’ve typed when I was supposed to be doing my  job.  It’s been real.  You know?  Open bar at the OJ.  Bourbon’s on me.  Tell Rollo Fred sent you.

PS: I made this little video of myself, with my computer, saying a few parting words.  Uploaded it to YouTube.  You can view it here.

You wish. See you next week. (I wish.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Get Real

So, a minute later, when May reappeared, unencumbered except for three beer cans that she distributed, Dortmunder said, “I got a very strange proposition today.”

She didn’t quite know how to take that word. Settling into her chair, she said, “A proposition?”

“A job, kind of. But weird.”

“John’s gonna describe it to you now,” Kelp said, and looked at Dortmunder, as alert as a sparrow on a branch.

Dortmunder took a breath. “It’s reality TV,” he said, and went on to describe how Murch’s Mom had introduced Doug Fairkeep into their lives and what Doug Fairkeep had proposed, including the payoff.

Somehow, every time he told that story he got the same kind of dead-air silent reaction. Now May and Kelp both gave him the glassy-eye treatment, so he said, “That’s the story, May, that’s all there is.”

She said, “Except the next day, when they drag you all off to jail.”

“Doug Fairkeep says we’ll work around that.”

“How?”

“He doesn’t say.”

May squinted, much the way she used to squint back when she chain-smoked. “I’ll tell you another question,” she said. “What is it you’re supposed to steal?”

“We didn’t go into that.”

“It might make a difference,” she said.

Dortmunder didn’t get it. “How?”

“Well,” she said, “if they were going for laughs, like. Like if you hijacked a diaper service truck, something like that.”

Kelp said, “I’m not gonna hijack any diaper service truck.”

Like that,” she said.

Dortmunder said, “May, I don’t think so. What they do is, they find people got some sort of interesting lifestyle or background or something, and they film the people doing what they do, and then they shape it, to make it entertainment. I don’t think they’re goin for jokes, I think they’re goin for real.”

“Jail is real,” she said.

Dortmunder nodded, but said, “The problem is, so is twenty G.”

“Looks to me,” Kelp said, “as though you oughta go back and see this guy and ask him a lot more questions.”

“I’m realizing that,” Dortmunder admitted. “You wanna come along?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Kelp said, as casual as an aluminum siding salesman. “No need for me to poke my face in at this point. Murch’s Mom didn’t rat me out to the guy.”

“No, she didn’t,” Dortmunder said.

“But I tell you what I’ll do,” Kelp said. “Come home with me and I’ll Google him.”

Dortmunder frowned. “Is that a good thing?”

“Oh, yeah,” Kelp said.

It’s 2009.   Almost half a century after you wandered into a drugstore, and found The Mercenaries.  Hard to believe. Time flies when you’re having fun.  You need something to read, so you surf on over to Amazon.  Hey, there’s a new Dortmunder out!  A few clicks later, you’ve got it on your device.  No more gaudy paperbacks at newsstands, no more revolving racks at drugstores, damned few bookstores of any kind in New York now.  (The rent is too damn high.)  Progress. One supposes.

As always, Dortmunder dissents.  But the world keeps changing, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  As inevitable as death and taxes.  Well, as the latter.  Apparently some people aren’t going to pay taxes anymore.  More for the rest of us, huh?

Somewhere, Donald E. Westlake is rolling his eyes at us.  But not on this mortal plane.  Mr. Westlake has left the building, after making one last statement about identity–and how we keep confusing it.  He’s been here with Dortmunder & Co. before, decades earlier.

In Jimmy The Kid, he was talking about the increasingly blurry line between fiction and reality.  Real criminals getting a plan from a paperback crime novel, only to learn that real life is more complex, more contingent, and nobody knows their lines, heeds their cues.  Because everybody in this world is living out his or her own story, as the protagonist, you can’t control life the way a writer can control a narrative.

In Get Real, he’s talking about the increasingly nonexistent line between fiction and ‘reality.’  As in reality TV.  Semi-scripted documentaries, where people narrate their daily existence, improvise dialogue in place of having conversations–become fictional characters in their own lives.

That erudite Irishman, Bishop Berkeley, once opined that to be is to be perceived.  That the world around us is created by the act of viewing it, God being the divine perceiver who holds the fabric of reality together.  I don’t know about all that, but we 21st century humans sure behave as if the Bishop spoke gospel.  Only for us, God is a camera.  And a boom mike.  Budget lacking, a webcam, or smartphone.  Life must be dramatized.  Like it wasn’t dramatic enough already.

Let’s learn about this one.  The last one.  Not just the last Dortmunder.  The last book in our queue.  (If there are any outstanding wagers, with regards to my reaching this milestone, time to settle up).

Given how much earlier Dirty Money appeared, we should probably assume this is the very last piece of work Westlake submitted for publication in his lifetime.  Marilyn Stasio’s review for the New York Times came out in late August of 2009, eight months after Westlake departed this mortal coil by way of Mexico.  After a long series of affectionate thumbnails, she put more time and effort into this one, as a final homage, even praising the wry social commentary that was always a part of this series.

It’s quite a nice review, one of the best he ever got in the Times, which routinely gave short shrift to far better Westlakes than this.  His humorous writings in particular tended to be dismissed as enjoyable diversions, but now his satiric edge begins to be appreciated.  All he had to do was die.   (Why am I thinking of Daffy Duck again?  Oh right.)

(Censored!?  Is literally nothing sacred?  Oh never mind.  Overture.  Curtain lights.  On with the show, this is it.)

The quote up top gives us the premise.  One fine day in New York City traffic, Murch’s Mom struck up a conversation with her fare of the moment, a TV producer working for Get Real, a shingle devoted to reality shows, owned by a media company called Monopole, majority controlled by by Trans-Global Universal Industries, the same mega-corporation referenced in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  (No mention of its disgraced CEO, so maybe he’s in prison.  Or the White House.  Details.)  TUI in turn is controlled by Somnitech, which we heard about in The Road to Ruin.  It is, quite literally, a rich tapestry.

Right now, the only show they’ve got on the air is The Stand, which is not, you should know, about a post-apocalyptic world in which the fate of humanity shall be decided by a war between Boulder and Las Vegas.  It’s about a failing roadside farm stand in upstate New York.  The kind of thing you come across channel-surfing, and you wonder what the hell is keeping Captain Trips.  Should have been here decades ago.

You know how proud mothers can never resist talking about what their sons do for a living.  So when our Gladys summons both Murch and Dortmunder to her cab for a confab, she has worrisome news to impart.

Stan said, “Hello? You started telling him what about me?”

“I’m looking to see,” his mother told him, “could he get you a job.”

“In TV? What am I gonna do, sports?”

“Whatever,” his mother said. “Face it, Stanley, your previous occupation is coming to an end.”

Stan frowned at her profile. “How do you work that out?”

“Cameras,” his Mom said, and pointed at one mounted on a nearby pole. “Security. ID. Tracking. Records of everything. Global positioning. Radio chips. It’s harder for people like you and John every day, and you know it is. It is time, Stanley, you underwent a career change.”

Dortmunder said, “It isn’t that bad.”

“Oh, it’s all right for you,” she told him. “You go on doing what you’re doing because what else have you got, but Stanley’s possessed of an actual marketable skill.”

“Mp,” said Dortmunder.

Stan said, “Which skill is that?” “Driving,” she said. “Keeping your wits about you. Anyway, the point is, I liked this guy, Doug Fairkeep his name is, so I wound up I gave him a little more of your background than I originally planned.”

Fairkeep wasn’t looking for any new drivers, but when he realized he was talking to somebody who could put him in touch with professional heisters, he got very excited.  He immediately saw the potential for a new show.  Title to be determined (I’d stick with the King motif–MiseryNeedful Things–I think he just had a book out called Finders Keepers?)

She gives Stan the guy’s card and it looks legit.  What he and Dortmunder do isn’t, so how could they ever pull a job on national TV and not end up in a reality show about prison, perhaps on MSNBC?  (With Dortmunder’s luck, it’d be Animal Planet, and he’d be a teaching aide for German Shepherds who chase burglars.  Rrrrr!)

While they ponder that,  Chapter 2 introduces us to Mr. Fairkeep, and his production assistant, Marcy Waldorf.  Who would like to be called a writer, since that’s what she’s doing for her meager living, but alas–

“It is not writing, Marcy,” Doug said, “for two reasons. In the first place, The Stand is a reality show, the cameras catching real life on the fly, not a scripted show with actors. The Finches aren’t actors, Marcy, they are an actual family struggling to run an actual farmstand on an actual farm on an actual secondary road in upstate New York.”

“But,” Marcy objected, “they’re saying the words we write, down here in the production assistants’ room, Josh and Edna and me.”

“The Finches often,” Doug allowed, “follow our suggestions, that’s true. But, Marcy, even if they followed your suggestions one hundred percent of the time, you still wouldn’t be a writer.”

“Why not?”

“Because The Stand is a reality show, and reality shows do not have actors and writers because they do not need actors and writers. We are a very low-budget show because we do not need actors and writers. If you were a writer, Marcy, you would have to be in the union, and you would cost us a whole lot more because of health insurance and a pension plan, which would make you too expensive for our budget, and we would very reluctantly have to let you go and replace you with another twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college. You’re young and healthy. You don’t want all those encumbrances, health insurance and pension plans.”

(Perish the thought.  And quite possibly the bodies producing said thoughts, but that’s a whole other issue, currently in the capable hands of the former CEO of TUI.  We just had to know what was the worst that could happen.)

Doug is delighted to learn that he’s got a call from the son of that Murch woman–now he can get to work on the new show (working title The Gang’s All Here, there goes the motif).  He’s even more pleased to learn that he’s going to meet Dortmunder as well–the criminal mastermind.  (Hey, he is sometimes!)

He’s a bit nonplussed to learn he’s going to meet them across the street from his office on Third, at the outdoor cafe pertaining to a bar/restaurant named Trader Thoreau.  (We are spared a description of the thematically decorated walls inside, since they never go inside).

The meeting is short, not at all sweet, and mainly involves Fairkeep trying to get pictures and tape recordings of our heroes, while they make very sure he gets no such thing to hold over their heads. And then politely suggest that they might throw him under a slow-moving bus if he keeps trying.  No shortage of those on Third.

The main thing is the offer, and it’s tempting.  20g per man, plus six hundred a day in working expenses.  The storyline, to unfold over one season, is them finding a place to rob, planning the job, then pulling it.  And the sticking point is how they can legally commit an illegal act on national TV.

(There is a poignant moment where Marcy, tasked with taking surreptitious photos of the duo with her smartphone only to have it confiscated, makes a plaintive request for its return, saying her entire life is on that phone.  Stan deletes the photos, hands it back.  Chivalry is not dead.  Certain other things, perhaps….)

Kelp is brought in to consult, and he brings in The Ultimate Consultant, as you see up top.  Doug consults on his end with his boss, Babe Tuck, a former foreign news correspondent, who has seen it all before, or so he thought.  Just a preliminary consult, they’re not ready to commit to the concept yet, and even Babe, who has been held hostage by terrorists, is somewhat taken aback at the threat of bus-related violence on Third Avenue.

“I didn’t take it literally,” Doug assured him. “I took it to be Stan telling me he would do what it took, so he was showing me the extreme case. Naturally, I gave him the recorder before we got anywhere near there.”

“So there’s a threat of violence,” Babe said, “without the actual violence. That’s good, I like that.”

“These guys,” Doug said, “have a certain grungy kind of authenticity about them that’ll play very well on the small screen.”

Nodding, looking at his notepad, sucking a bit on his lower lip, Babe said, “What are they gonna steal?”

“That’s up to them,” Doug said. “We didn’t get that far.”

“No widow’s mites,” Babe cautioned. “No crippled newsie’s crutches.”

“Oh, nothing like that,” Doug said. “Our demographic would like to see some snooty rich people get cleaned out.”

(For all we know, many similar conversations have taken place at production offices with regards to many a Dortmunder movie that did or did not happen, as well as the TV pilot threatened in the trades a short while ago, of which nothing has been heard since.  Marcy should try applying for a job on one of those, they have writers. Kind of.)

Doug gets a call from Dortmunder.  He and Kelp are waiting to see him.  In his apartment.  (Kelp must have decided this was too interesting a meet to pass up, Post-Google).  They tell him to bring a sixpack.  Heineken, please.  It was Beck’s at Trader Thoreau, so I’m guessing the beer choice is Andy’s.  (Nobody ever has DAB in stock these days. My dad used to like that.)

And the moral here is that Google is a very good thing indeed–when you are the Googler.  As opposed to the Googled.  Googlee?  Whatever.

Doug is having mixed emotions about these people.  On the one hand, they’re breaking into his place like it’s no big deal, making themselves at home, pawing through his personal effects, learning about him while they wait (Like Google in three dimensions.  With lockpicks.) On the other hand, this does prove they’re–you know–for real.  That’s what he wanted, right?  Reality.  Of course, for people in his business, the meaning of the word is more flexible

Let’s say we rent a house, and we furnish it,” Fairkeep said, “and we put spycams all through the house, and we get a bunch of college kids, boys and girls, and we pay them to live in the house. But the gimmick could be, they have to spend the whole summer vacation there, they can’t ever step outside the house. Anybody leaves the house, they’re out of the game. We ship in food, and they can watch TV, and like that. And they don’t know each other before they start. And we can make up any rules we want to make up, make it different from any other show like that.”

Dortmunder said, “And you get people to do this? All summer?”

“We’ve got waiting lists,” Fairkeep said.

Dortmunder nodded. “And people watch this.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“I am surprised.”

“The point being,” Fairkeep said, “in a situation like that, what’s gonna happen? Who falls in love, has a fight, can’t hack it. We do the setup, but then they just do themselves. Same with you.”

Andy said, “Only, where’s our setup?”

Which in Kelp-speak means “What do we steal?”  This remains the sticking point.  And the logical solution would be that they’d steal from Get Real, or one of its sister companies–a sanctioned theft, indemnified under the corporate umbrella.  Doug doesn’t like this logic, but he has no convincing counter to it.  If Dortmunder & Co. can’t commit legal larceny, the show will not go on.

Doug protests that Get Real doesn’t have anything worth stealing–the other companies have things like aircraft engines that make for an impractical heist.  Having done his Googling well, Kelp knows how rich the corporate tapestry is, rattles off a list of names, knocking Doug even further off-balance.

Dortmunder, focusing on the essentials, insists that somewhere in this capitalist crochet there must exist some cash.  Hearing this assertion, Doug Fairkeep hesitates for a nanosecond, then issues a rote denial.  It’s all electronic impulses now, no cash anywhere (this in spite of the fact that he’s already told them he pays restaurant checks in cash so he can skim his expense account).

The thieves spot this wobble like a shark smells blood in the water.  So. There’s cash.  And it has to be somewhere Doug could have seen it.  The game’s afoot!

Next, we are with young Judson Blint, still slaving away at the enviable behest of the enticing J.C. Taylor, keeping her minor fraudulent operations afloat, while she busies herself with the great nation of Maylohda she conjured out of thin air to scam the entire planet.  She tells him to go have some fun.  He says yes ma’am.  She does not like that.

“Ma’am,” she said, with a scornful look, and left. Judson shrugged—it was so hard to know the right reactions to people when you were barely a person yourself at nineteen—and went back to, face it, work.

He always saved the music business for last, because those people were the most fun. The people who just wanted to be a detective at home in their spare time or just wanted to look at dirty pictures at home in their spare time were pretty cut-and-dried, merely sending in their money, but the people who sent music to Super Star Music to have lyrics set to it, or alternatively, lyrics for an infusion of music (sometimes A’s request meshing just fine with B’s, so what came in could be shipped right back out again, neither participant any the wiser), tended to write confessional letters of such mawkish cluelessness that Judson wished there were, somewhere in the world, a publisher gutsy enough to put out a collection of them.

But that was not to be, since dispassionate self-knowledge is not a quality held in much esteem by the majority of the human race, so not enough people would find the product funny. Oh, well; at least he could enjoy the sincerity of these simpletons, to ease his own stress in the workaday world.

Ah; this grandmother of eight had been compelled at last to her true vocation as love-song lyricist by the flaming car-crash death of her favorite seventeen-year-old grand-daughter. Well, Grandma, lucky for you she bought it.

He’s only delighted when Dortmunder calls, saying something about getting the group back together.  To play a very different kind of song.

And for the penultimate time in the annals of world literature–stop booing, it’s not my fault!–

When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Wednesday night at ten, the big low-ceilinged square room was underutilized. The booths along both sides and the tables in the middle were all empty. At the bar, along the rear of the room, Rollo the meaty bartender, off to the right, was slowly carving tomorrow’s specials onto a black blackboard with a stub of white chalk, a gray rag in his other hand. The regulars, as usual, were clustered along the left side of the bar.

It being April, the regulars were discussing taxes. “I might declare my bowling ball as an expense,” one said.

The guy to his right reared back. “Your bowling ball!”

“We wager certain amounts,” the first regular explained. “Only then I’d have to declare how much I won, and then pay tax on that. I asked the guy at the drugstore, which way do I come out ahead, he said he’d get back to me on that.”

As Dortmunder angled toward Rollo, he saw that the barman was groping in the direction of “lasagna,” but hadn’t quite reached it yet. Seeing Dortmunder, he nodded and said, “Long time no see.”

“I been semiretired,” Dortmunder told him. “Not on purpose.”

“That can be a drag.” Rollo pointed his jaw at the black-board. “Whadaya think?”

Dortmunder looked: LUHZANYA. “I don’t know about that H,” he said.

(I don’t know I’d necessarily want to eat lasagna at the OJ, no matter how it’s spelled, but if that was the price of attendance, gladly would I pay it. That’s what they invented Bismuth Subsalicylate for. )

Dortmunder and the next-to-arrive Kelp proceed to the back room, as one of the regulars insists that the flat tax means you owe the Feds the equivalent of one month’s rent.  Past the pointers and setters, past where the phone booth used to be when there were still phone booths.  They take a seat, pour themselves some Amsterdam Liquor Store bourbon (Our Own Brand), and wait.

Not for long.  Thunderous footfalls sound in the distance, like you hear at the opening of a Kaiju Eiga film.  Want to see how you spell Tiny Bulcher in Japanese?

As Dortmunder nodded, the doorway filled with enough person to choke Jonah’s whale. This creature, who was known only to those who felt safe in considering him their friend as Tiny, had the body of a top-of-the-line SUV, in jacket and pants of a neutral gray that made him look like an oncoming low, atop which was a head that didn’t make you think of Easter Island so much as Halloween Island. In his left fist he carried a glass of what looked like, but was not, cherry soda. When he spoke it wasn’t a surprise that bass notes of an organ sounded: “I’m late.”

Judson arrives, and behold–he’s got his own drink.  From now on, Rollo the Bartender will refer to him in absentia as the Campari and Soda, we may safely infer.

So everybody gets into the loop with the Get Real thing, and the meeting at Fairkeep’s apartment, and the momentary wobble when they asked if he knew of a place that had cash.  Incidentally–

Dortmunder said, “Andy and I had a discussion with the guy this afternoon, at his apartment.”

Stan said, “Oh? Where’s that?”

“One of those Trump buildings on the west side.”

“And how is it?”

Dortmunder shrugged. “Okay.”

“A little too bronze,” Kelp said.

Tiny said, “Over here, I’m still working around this.”

“Okay,” Dortmunder said.

“Andy did some computer trick—”

“It’s no trick,” Kelp said. “I Googled.”

“Oh, sure,” Stan said.

“Whatever,” Dortmunder said. “Turns out, this guy’s little company is owned by a bigger company, owned by a bigger company, and like that. Like those cartoons where every fish is getting eat by the bigger fish behind him.”

So Trump now officially exists in the Dortmunderian universe.  As if they didn’t have enough problems there.  But leaving that to one side, the gang being all here, they try to figure out exactly what Doug’s little wobble would signify, and of course the Campari and Soda nails it.

“Oh!” said the kid. When they all looked at him, he had a huge happy grin on his face. Lifting his glass, he toasted them all in Campari and soda, then knocked back a good swig of it, slapped the glass down onto the felt, and said, “Now I get it!”

That was the annoying thing about the kid, who was otherwise okay. Every once in a while, he’d get it before anybody else got it, and when he got it, he got it.

So Tiny said to him, “If you got it, give it to us.”

“Bribes,” the kid said.

They looked at him. Stan said, “Bribes?”

“Every big company that does business in different countries,” the kid said, “bribes the locals when they want to come do business. Here, buy our aircraft engines, not that other guy’s aircraft engines, and you look like you could use another set of golf clubs. Here’s a little something for the wife. Wouldn’t you like to run our TV show on your station? I know they don’t pay you what you deserve; here, have an envelope.”

“I’ve heard about this,” Kelp said. “There’s a word everybody uses, it’s chai, it means ‘tea,’ you sit down together, you have a cuppa tea, you move the envelope.”

Tiny said, “So? That’s what they call business.”

“Somewhere around thirty years ago,” the kid said, “the US Congress passed a law, it’s illegal for an American company to bribe foreigners.”

Stan said, “What? No way.”

“It’s true,” the kid said. “American companies have to be very careful, it’s a federal crime, it’s a felony, they all gotta do it, but they really don’t wanna get caught.”

Kelp said, “So we’re shooting ourself in the foot, is what you’re saying.”

“Both feet,” said the kid. “And not for the first time. Anyway, what this guy Doug saw was the courier, the guy who carries the cash. He’s a known guy to everybody, he works for this television outfit, he travels for them all the time, they’re used to seeing him go back and forth, he always carries all his movie equipment with him.”

Tiny said, “That’s very nice.”

“And one time,” the kid said, “maybe more, Doug saw the cash going into the DVD boxes. So the guy who carries the money works in Doug’s outfit.”

“Him,” Dortmunder said, “we’ll find. It may take a little time, but him we’ll find.”

“What’s extra nice about this,” Tiny said, “it’s like those guys that knock over drug dealers. You heist somebody already committing a crime, he doesn’t call the cops.”

“At last,” Kelp said. “The perfect crime.”

I was somewhat bothered by the assembled thieves’ stern disapproval of sound anti-corruption legislation, but then I remembered–they’re thieves.  There really is nothing objectionable about small time crooks snookering major leaguers.  Inverting that cartoon of the big fish eating the little ones.  You never heard of piranha?

I don’t know about that H, but I do know that as they walk out of the OJ, and Rollo has lasagna spelled correctly on the blackboard because he called The Knights of Columbus to check, I have to restrain myself from hugging him.  Could be misinterpreted.  With the exception of a brief episode near the end, what we get from now on is a simulacra Rollo, overseeing an ersatz OJ.  In a tediously predictable Part 2 to this review.

I used to be a lot terser when I started doing this.  As the blog rolled on, the books got longer, more sophisticated, the author finding new ways to restate his themes, and of course he wasn’t writing short paperbacks anymore–I found myself getting lost in the devilish details.  And there is no pleasanter place to go astray, but even so, I miss the pithier me, sometimes.

All the same, I thought I might manage one final one-parter for this one.  It’s one of the shorter books in this series, bit of a throwback to the early days.  Westlake was focused here, not going off on tangents, not introducing a lot of character arcs that don’t go anywhere, not taking elements he might have intended for some other novel he never wrote and retro-fitting them for Dortmunder.

There are the usual satiric asides–it’s never just about quirky crooks pulling half-assed heists–but the satire here stems entirely from the A-Plot, and there is no B-Plot. Very focused indeed.  Almost as if the author knew he didn’t have much time left.  For as Dr. Johnson said, nothing focuses the mind like the realization you’ll hang tomorrow.  Let’s see how well that axiom applies to Fred Fitch.

Those who want to hold off paying their bets until next time will not be considered welshers.  There will be no Part 3.  (Unless it becomes unavoidable)  I only have two more (nearly identical) cover images.  And no more novels at all  Get ready.  The end is nigh upon us.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, Part 2

“The thing is,” Andy explained, “when I feel I need a car, good transportation, something very special, I look for a vehicle with MD plates.  This is one place where you can trust doctors.  They understand discomfort, and they understand comfort, and they got the money to back up their opinions.  Trust me, when I bring you a car, it’ll be just what the doctor ordered, and I mean that exactly the way it sounds.

Looking dazed, Anne Marie said, “You people are going to take a little getting used to.”

“What I do,” May told her, sympathetically, “is pretend I’m on a bus going down a hill and the steering broke.  And also the brakes.  So there’s nothing to do but just look at the scenery and enjoy the ride.”

Anne Marie considered this.  She said, “What happens when you get to the bottom of the hill?”

“I don’t know,” May said.  “We didn’t get there yet.”

It wasn’t a car that came for Max forty minutes later, it was a fleet of cars, all of them large, all except his own limo packed with cargos of large men.  He couldn’t have had more of a parade if he were the president of the United States, going out to return a library book.

His own limo, when it stopped at the foot of the steps from the TUI plane, held only Earl Radburn and the driver.  Earl emerged, to wait at the side of the car, while half a dozen bulky men came up to escort Max down those steps, so that he corrected that image: No, not like a president, more like a serial killer on his way to trial.

The president image had been better.

It came up in the comments section last time, and bears mentioning here–this novel marks the total reversal of the original Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic.  In the first three novels, Kelp brought Dortmunder a crazy-sounding job, the job would go sour, and Dortmunder would blame Kelp, call him a jinx.  Then work with him again in the next book.

This couldn’t go on indefinitely, so in the next five novels, somebody else brought Dortmunder the job, or, in the case of Why Me?, the job was a simple one-man burglary that suddenly got very complicated.    Kelp might be help or hindrance, usually both.

This book starts with somebody bringing Dortmunder a job; a simple two-man burglary, that suddenly gets really complicated.  The billionaire Dortmunder is ostensibly robbing robs Dortmunder instead.  Takes a supposedly lucky ring May gave him right off his finger.  Humiliates him.  Dortmunder wants his lucky ring back.  He needs help.  He has to track down this billionaire and take that ring off his finger personally, to undo the insult.  It’s about self-respect, not money.

So he calls Kelp in, and Andy is atypically hesitant–this job sounds crazy!   Dortmunder has to sell him, and in the end it’s not loyalty that makes him agree–it’s that Dortmunder, who has been the real jinx all along, is suddenly himself a good luck charm.  Now that he doesn’t have the ring.  Now that he could care less about money, he’s making money hand over fist.  Everybody wants to work with him now.  He’s got the Midas Touch.

First he went back to Max Fairbanks’ house in Carrport LI, and pillaged it, all by himself. Then he got together a four man string to hit an apartment in a theater/hotel complex Fairbanks owns.  Everybody made out great from that score.  But both times he missed Fairbanks, and Fairbanks is wearing the ring, never takes it off, because it bears his corporate symbol, the I-Ching trigam Tui, and he believes it will bring him good luck (which he’s already enjoyed an obscene amount of). Dortmunder has to catch him offguard somewhere. And the guy has to testify before congress, so he’s going to be staying at a little place he’s got in the Watergate.  Because where else, right?

Dortmunder and Kelp should be able to handle that gig by themselves, but they don’t know Washington.  Affordable GPS devices are not a thing yet, even for Kelp.  They need a guide.  Fortunately, Kelp just hooked up with the very recently single Anne Marie Carpinaw, daughter of a 14-term Kansas congressman, abandoned by her husband at the Fairbanks hotel in Times Square.  She knows our nation’s capital like the back of her lovely hand.  And is ambivalent about it, as she seems to be about nearly everything in her life, Kelp included.  Well, when you get right down to it, everybody is ambivalent about that town. Though it can seem awfully stuck on itself.

“The George Washington Memorial Parkway?   They really lean on it around here, don’t they?”

“After a while, you don’t notice it,” Anne Marie assured him.  “But it is a little, I admit, like living on a float in a Fourth of July parade.  Here’s our turn.”

There was a lot of traffic; this being Sunday, it was mostly tourist traffic, license plates from all over the United States, attached to cars that didn’t know where the hell they were going.  Andy swivel-hipped through it all, startling drivers who were trying to read maps without changing lanes, and Anne Marie said, “Now you want the Francis Scott Key Bridge.”

“You’re putting me on.”

“No, I’m not.  There’s the sign, see?”

Andy swung up and over, and there they were crossing the Potomac again, this time northbound, the city of Washington spread out in front of them like an almost life-sized model of itself, as though it were still in the planning stages and they could still decide not to go through with it.

Basically this entire chapter seems to exist for the purposes of telling people who want to visit our nation’s capital that they really do not want to drive there, but Anne Marie gets them through the urban maze unscathed.  The stolen car with MD plates having been abandoned, John and Andy still have to scope out the Watergate complex, while May and Anne Marie (who get along great from the start) go shopping and sight-seeing, but in fact they do a better job casing the joint as well–join a group of prospective renters touring the apartment complex, find out everything the guys needed to know.

And turns out the joint is empty when they break in (this isn’t a residence, just a place to crash when Max is in lobbyist mode, so no valuable art to steal).  They set up camp there and wait.  Dortmunder is disgusted.  Andy is somewhat more enthused, because there’s fifty thousand dollars in bribes, I mean PAC money, waiting there for a Fairbanks aide to take it to various recipients, as they learn from the answering machine message the underling left, referring to the ‘PAC Packs.”  Possibly to be put in a Fed-Ex PAK.  Dortmunder is irritated by all the variant spellings of ‘pack’ (as his creator would have been).  Andy is just delighted to see this unexpected dividend.  And horrified when John doesn’t want to take it.

See, Dortmunder figures Fairbanks has to show up at some point, but this employee is going to show up for the cash, and if he doesn’t find it, he might call the cops, and he’ll certainly call Fairbanks.  John is adamant–if it screws up his getting the ring back, they can forget about the Fifty G’s.

Kelp’s agile mind searches feverishly for a work-around, and he says they’ll leave a note saying Fairbanks’ secretary took it for distribution.  Dortmunder grudgingly agrees, and they leave with the money, figuring they’ll come back later for Fairbanks and the ring.

(Anne Marie is doubled over with laughter when she hears about this–“At last,” she said, when she could say anything again, “the trickle-down theory begins to work.” )

But before they can go back to the apartment to try again for the ring, Wally Knurr calls, saying that Fairbanks won’t be staying at the Watergate apartment after all, and that his location will no longer be made known to his corporate empire at large–so Wally won’t be able to track him via the internet anymore. What gives here?  Well, Mr. Fairbanks, staying at his beachfront condo in Hilton Head, has been consulting The Book, as he calls it.  And the ancient wisdom of the Orient is urging caution.

Thunder in the middle of the lake:
The image of FOLLOWING.
Thus the superior man at nightfall
Goes indoors for rest and recreation

Hmmm.  The Book often spoke of the superior man, and Max naturally assumed it was always referring to himself.  When it said the superior man takes heed, Max would take heed.   When it said the superior man moves forward boldly, Max would move forward boldly.  But now the superior man goes indoors?  At nightfall?  It was nightfall, and he was indoors.

(At this moment in time, unbeknownst to Max, Dortmunder was breaking into his apartment at the Watergate for rest and remuneration, which for him amounts to the same thing.)

He probes further into the text, which is suggesting that someone is following him.  Could it be the annoying Detective Klematsky, who suspects him of burgling his own residences for the insurance?  He needs more information, so he does another coin toss, this one leading to a hexagram–The Marrying Maiden. Max doesn’t like that one.  He strives for the proper interpretation, and suddenly it comes to him–the ring!   That burglar is coming for his ring!

And Max is as perversely determined to keep the ring as Dortmunder is to regain it.  So this is why he never came to the Watergate apartment as planned, and this is why he’s made his movements a secret, even to most of his employees.  But there’s one trip he can’t conceal–he needs to go to his casino in Las Vegas.  And it occurs to him that this thief will make a try for the ring there–so he can set a trap.  He shall yet prove he, Max Fairbanks, is the superior man, not this bilious brigand!

So Max heads for Vegas, making the needed arrangements with his security staff to nab Dortmunder in the act of lèse-majesté.  While Dortmunder begins to put together a string for what will prove to be his biggest and best heist ever.

In the meantime, Andy Kelp has one of his little tete-a-tetes with his friend Detective Klematsky at a New York restaurant, a New Orleans themed eatery this time.  And weirdly, this time Klematsky is buying.  Because he’s the one that needs information.  He wants to know if his old friend Kelp has heard about any people in his profession doing fake burglaries as part of an insurance fraud scam.

He knows that Andy’s eyes blink rapidly when he tells a lie.  What he doesn’t know is that Andy can do that on purpose too.  So Andy tells him he never heard about anything like that, his eyes blinking furiously all the while.  Telling Klematsky exactly what he wants to hear, while pretending to do nothing of the sort.  Like Alan Grofield (the Stark version of that character), Andy Kelp can even lie with the truth.  And confirmed in his suspicions, Bernard Klematsky, who finds insurance fraud particularly offensive, is now determined to arrest Max Fairbanks for one of the very few white collar crimes Max Fairbanks is not guilty of.

And as Dortmunder enters the O.J. Bar and Grill, we get another scintillating discussion relating to issues of the day, while Rollo the bartender attempts to put up a new neon beer sign.

“It’s a code,” the first regular was saying.  “It’s a code and only the cash registers can read it.”

“Why is it in code?” the second regular asked him.  “The Code War’s over.”

A third regular now hove about and steamed into the conversation, saying “What?  The Code War?  It’s not the Code War, where ya been?  It’s the Cold War.”

The second regular was serene with certainty.  “Code,” he said,  “It was the Code War because they used all those codes to keep the secrets from each other.”  With a little pitying chuckle, he said “Cold War.  Why would anybody call a war cold?”

The third regular, just as certain but less serene, said, “Anybody’s been awake the last hundred years knows, it was the Cold War because it’s always winter in Russia.”

The second regular chuckled again, an irritating sound.  “Then how come,” he said, “they eat salad?”

The third regular, derailed, frowned at the second regular and said, “Salad?”

With Russian dressing.”

After a while, they start arguing about what the code is called–zip?–civic?–Morse? Rollo the bartender tries telling them it’s called a bar code, and is accused of having a one-track mind.  And you have seen far weirder and more uninformed conversations than this happening online, probably participated in a few, and there wasn’t any beer being served during them.  Think you’re so smart. Hmph.

Dortmunder is not kidding around with this job.  He’s calling in the heavy artillery.  If you know of anything heavier, all I can say is, I surrender.   This cannon already settled the argument up front by demonstrating a cold cure that involves squeezing all the bad air out of a person.

Kelp continued to hold the door open, and in came a medium range intercontinental ballistic missile with legs.  Also arms, about the shape of fire hydrants, but longer, and a head, about the shape of a fire hydrant.  This creature, in a voice that sounded as thought it had started from the center of the earth several centuries ago and just now got here, said, “Hello, Dortmunder.”

“Hello, Tiny,” Dortmunder said.  “What did you do to Rollo’s customers?”

“They’ll be all right,” Tiny said, coming around the table to take Kelp’s place.  “Soon as they catch their breath.”

“Where did you toss it?” Dortmunder asked.

Tiny, whose full name was Tiny Bulcher and whose strength was as the strength of ten even though his heart in fact was anything but pure, settled himself in Kelp’s former chair and laughed and whomped Dortmunder on the shoulder.  Having expected it, Dortmunder had already braced himself against the table, so it wasn’t too bad.”  “Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “you make me laugh.”

“I’m glad,” Dortmunder said.

Tiny is even more amused to hear Dortmunder’s plan–to rob an entire casino.   Knowing in advance that Fairbanks will be setting a trap for all of them.  Vegas is a hard target at the best of times. But casinos are one of the few places left in this modern electronic world that have a whole lot of untraceable cash on hand.  And in the midst of yukking it up over Dortmunder’s recent professional embarrassment, he’s been hearing about all these amazing scores that follows it. He’s listening.

So are Stan Murch and Ralph Winslow–the latter a lockman who is known for always having a glass full of liquor and ice cubes in one hand.  A string of five is usually as big as Dortmunder wants to get–he likes to say that if a job can’t be pulled with five guys, it’s not worth pulling.  But this is no ordinary job, and will require no ordinary string.  And it will require a plan.  Which falls on him.

“You must have an idea,” Andy Kelp had said at one point, for instance, but that was the whole problem.  Of course he had an idea.  He had a whole lot of ideas, but a whole lot of ideas isn’t a plan.  A plan is a bunch of details that mesh with one another, so you go from this step to this step like crossing a stream on a lot of little boulders sticking out and never fall in. Ideas without a plan is usually just enough boulders to get you into the deep part of the stream, and no way to get back.

Westlake had Kelp say something like this in Drowned Hopes, and clearly he’s talking about more than heists here.  A novel, you might say, is a bunch of details that mesh with one another, right?  Westlake liked to write from what he called the ‘push’ method of narrative storytelling, where he would start with some basic ideas, and then push forward into the story, working things out as he went, listening to the characters, minding the terrain.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  Fact is, a plan worked out perfectly in advance of a job is one of those things God loves to laugh at (along with Dortmunder).

He can’t work it all out without going there and seeing the lay of the land. Knowing who he’s working with, what tools he has in the kit.  And the string keeps growing by leaps and bounds, as more and more old associates, many of whom have not been seen in some time, volunteer for this Vegas casino heist. You might say they’re an all-star cast.  Or you could come up with some ruder term.  Something rodentine, perhaps?

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Let’s lay it out.  Planner: John Dortmunder.  Drivers: Stan Murch and Fred Lartz (and his wife Thelma, who does all the actual driving in the Lartz family these days).  Lockmen: Ralph Winslow, Wally Whistler, and Herman X (who is now just Herman Jones, after doing a stint as Herman Makanene Stulu’mbnick in Africa, and being a Jones must make life much simpler for a thief, all things considered).  Utility infielders: Andy Kelp, Tiny Bulcher, Gus Brock, Ralph Demrovsky, and the frequently unfortunate Jim O’Hara (but not this time, baby).

That’s either twelve or thirteen (depending on whether you count Anne Marie, along for the ride, much to Andy’s consternation), and we’ve seen Westlake put on this kind of passion play before, in The Score, and Butcher’s Moon–one more indication that a long-buried alter-ego is stirring within him–but there’s also seven unnamed associates in the string, for a grand total of twenty.  Even Parker never had a string that big.  Or a target this well-guarded.

Most of them come down from New York with Andy and Tiny, in a purloined mobile home, an Invidia, and of course Westlake made that name up, along with a bunch of other fictional mobile homes they considered at a dealership in New Jersey, before deciding this was the one they wanted to steal.  There were Dobermans guarding the dealership, but they got some nice raw hamburger with happy pills inside, and went happily to sleep, dreaming of rabbits.  Cute.

But all this time, Dortmunder has been checking out the scene in Vegas (with Kelp, who then heads back to New York to round up some needed items, as mentioned).  And everybody who sees Dortmunder figures he’s up to something, which of course he is, and they’re all telling him forget about it.  Vegas is a burial ground for guys with big plans.  He keeps insisting he’s just a tourist, here to see the sights, try his luck.  “Uh-huh” they keep saying–the waitresses, the motel clerk, everybody.  He just does not look like the sight-seeing type, and the only gambling establishment he’d fit in at would be a racetrack.

The security men spotted him as a ringer almost immediately when he showed up at the casino, but Kelp got him some new clothes.  Which are very definitely going to stay in Vegas when he goes.

The pants, to begin with, weren’t pants, they were shorts.  Shorts.  Who over the age of six wears shorts?  What person, that is, of Dortmunder’s dignity, over the age of six wears shorts?  Big baggy tan shorts with pleats.  Shorts with pleats so that he looked like he was wearing brown paper bags from the supermarket above his knees, with his own sensible black socks below the knees, but the socks and their accompanying feet were then stuck into sandals.  Sandals?  Dark brown sandals?  Big clumpy sandals with his own black socks, plus those knees, plus those shorts?  Is this a way to dress?

And let’s not forget the shirt.  Not that it was likely anybody could ever forget this shirt, which looked as thought it had been manufactured at midnight during a power outage.  No two pieces of the shirt were the same color.  The left short sleeve was plum, the right was lime.  The back was dark blue.  The left front panel was chartreuse, the right was cerise, and the pocket directly over his heart was white.  And the whole shirt was huge, baggy and draping and falling around his body, and worn outside the despicable shorts.

Dortmunder lifted his gaze from his reproachful knees, and contemplated, without love, the clothing Andy Kelp had forced him into.  He said “Who wears this stuff?”

“Americans,” Kelp told him.

“Don’t they have mirrors in America?”

And it works.  The same security guys who started tailing him the moment he showed his face don’t give him a second look in this get-up.  Just another rube contributing to their payroll (as opposed to stealing it).  The motel clerk, who has seen them all come and go, just says “Uh-huh.”  She may be impressed, but she’d never admit it.

Dortmunder’s plan is starting to come together in his head now.  He’s made contact with a   former New Yorker, a former heist-man running a perfectly legitimate shady business operation manufacturing cheap knock-offs of famous brands of this or that, fellow named Lester Vogel.  He’s quite happy to provide needed materials for the job.  Just delighted to hear a New York accent again, accompanied by New York rudeness.  A bit confused as to why Dortmunder is expressing interest in tanks of various gases he has on the premises.

And staying at the hotel that goes with the casino, Anne Marie Carpinaw is wondering what the hell she’s doing here, and so is Andy, and yet they do seem to enjoy each other’s company, and quite a lot of sex seems to be going on, though this being a Dortmunder novel, it is only vaguely alluded to in passing. At one point, in her room, she says she’s not sure they belong together, but then he asks her if this is a good time to bring that up, and she says “Well, maybe not.” Not such an unusual conversation for a new couple to have.

She is, however, going to some pains to make sure she doesn’t get rounded up with the rest of the gang if the heist goes sour.  She watches a lot of Court TV. Actually appearing on it doesn’t appeal to her.

So all the players have been assembled in one place–even Detective Bernard Klematsky is on his way to Vegas.  And little hearkening to any of these impending events, other than his imminent capture and final defeat of that pilfering plebe who should learn to know his place, Max Fairbanks waits at a guest cottage on the casino grounds, his security men instructed to not stay too close to him, so as not to scare Dortmunder away.  They are not happy about this, but he’s the boss.

He’s also got to deal with the manager of the Gaiety Hotel, Battle Lake, and Casino, Brandon Camberbridge, a happily closeted gay man, with a wife who happily cheats on him with various non-gay men, a dowdy older secretary who happily serves as a surrogate mother, and he loves his job as much as anyone has ever loved any job in the history of work.  And in the course of his conversations with Brandon, Max realizes that this guy actually thinks of Max’s casino as being his casino, and makes a mental note to transfer him elsewhere.  Doesn’t pay to let his employees ever forget they are just employees.  Only one person actually matters, and that is Max Fairbanks.

Um, yes–the Battle Lake.  Las Vegas was, by this time, getting to be more and more about putting on a show for the tourists, and less and less about honest gambling.  A theme park with slot machines.  The Battle Lake is an artificially created body of water upon which remote controlled full-sized replicas of various warships do ersatz battle with each other, for the edification of the masses.  It sounds a bit more Disney than Vegas, but I guess that’s the point–that and the fact that the Tui symbol on that ring Max is defending, and Dortmunder is seeking, means Joyous Lake, and Max’s recent I-Ching readings have been referring obliquely to a lake, and intimating that less than joyous developments are in the offing.

He tries once more to divine his future through the coin toss, and the passages they lead him to, and here’s the thing–it’s pretty clear that in this story, the I-Ching really does work.  But convinced as he is that he is a Man of Destiny, Max is doomed to keep projecting what he wants to see onto the auguries of The Book.  “When one has something to say, it is not believed.”  (And would you believe that every single I-Ching quote in this novel is 100% real?)

He comes very quietly, oppressed, in a golden carriage.
Humiliation, but the end is reached.

Well, wait now.  Who comes very quietly in a golden carriage?  The plane that had brought Max here, he supposed that could possibly be thought of as a golden carriage.  But had he been oppressed?

Well, yes, actually he had been, in that he was still oppressed by the thought of the burglar out there, prowling after him.   So that’s what it must mean.

It couldn’t very well be the burglar in a golden carriage, could it? What would a burglar be doing in a golden carriage?

Again, Max went to the further commentaries in the back part of The Book, where he read,

“He comes very quietly,”: his will is directed downward.  Though the place is not appropriate, he nevertheless has companions.

I have companions.  I have Earl Rayburn, and Wylie Branch and all those bulky security men.  I have the hotel staff.  I have thousands and thousands of employees at my beck and call.  The place is not appropriate because a person in my position shouldn’t have to stoop to deal personally with such a gnat as this, that’s all it means.

And that’s why there’s humiliation in it, the humiliation of having to deal with this gnat myself.  But the end is reached.  That’s the point.

Come on, Mr. Burglar.  My companions and I are waiting for you, in our golden carriage.  The end is about to be reached.  And who do you have, to accompany you?

Oh, he really should not have asked that question.   And the Invidia has actually been painted silver, but that’s such a niggling little detail.

Stan Murch, Jim O’Hara, Gus Brock, and the one and only Tiny Bulcher start off the caper.  Stan and Jim pose as deliverymen bringing more oxygen tanks for the casino to ‘enrich’ the air inside the casino, encouraging people to stay up later,and lose more money.  The tanks are green, from Lester Vogel’s establishment, but what’s inside them is nitrous oxide–laughing gas.

And with a bit of not-too-gentle prodding from Stan, Jim, Gus, and most of all Tiny, the guards prove quite willing to show them just where those tanks need to go.  This is an upsetting and painful experience for the guards, as it would be for anyone, but they start to relax shortly afterwards.  These are considerate robbers, who bring their own anesthetic.

There’s some nice scenes with Herman, posing as one of Max’s employees from Housekeeping, marching right into Max’s guest cottage on the pretense of needing to clean up, Uncle-Tomming his way around Max and the guards–unable to grasp that Dortmunder might have a black associate, or any associate–laughing at them on the inside.  (And wouldn’t Sammy have been just perfect to play Herman, back in the day?   This is Vegas, I hardly need say which Sammy I mean.)

Herman is done playing around with politics, foreign or domestic.  He’s just a straight heister now (well, presumably still bisexual, you know what I meant). He’s going to let his profession know he’s back, black, and better than ever.  And I still think Westlake should have given him his own novel, but a bit late now.

So they do the heist.  That’s not really important to Dortmunder.   Much as these guys may be his friends, they’re still professionals, independents.  Nobody’s errand boys.  He needed to give them a reason to stick their necks out this far, and money usually works.  He’s not leading them–he gave them a plan, and they ran with it.  And now the rest is up to him.  He wants that ring.

He waits until the string is ready to leave with the loot (two million–more than Parker ever got until Nobody Runs Forever), then he calls the cops, and reports a robbery. And all holy hell breaks loose.

Klematsky picks this moment to try and arrest Fairbanks–he assumes this casino heist is just another insurance scam–Max’s local security man is disgustedly assuming the same thing–explains Max’s odd behavior–he was working with the heisters.

Max, unable to process that he, not Dortmunder, is being arrested, lams it out onto the grounds, as the Battle Lake catches fire, and bits of burning artificial shrubbery are flying everywhere.  All he can think now is that he needs lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  But first he needs someone to get him out of this inferno.  A helpful fireman in a smoke mask offers his services.  Guess who.

“Give me that ring!”

“No!” You’ve ruined everything, you’ve destroyed–”

“Give me the ring!”

“Never!”

Max, inflamed by the injustice of it all, leaped on the false fireman and drove him to the blacktop.  They rolled together there, the false fireman trying to get the ring, Max trying to rip that mask off so he could bite the fellow’s face, and Max wound up on top.

Straddling him.  Winning, on top, as he always was, as he always would be. Because I am Max Fairbanks, and I will not be beaten, not be beaten.

You didn’t expect this, did you, Mr. Burglar?  You didn’t expect me to be on top, did you, holding you down with my knees, ready now to give you what you deserve, kill you with my bare hands, rip this mask–

And at this point, wouldn’t you know, up runs the normally mild-mannered Brandon Camberbridge, in the grip of a berserker rage.  He must have heard about how Fairbanks set up the robbery.  His beautiful hotel.  Ruined.  Pillaged. Ravished.  He beats the bullshit out of Max, as so many other of his employees must have yearned to do across the years.  And as Max lies there, defeated, barely conscious, Dortmunder, back on his feet, calmly reaches down, takes his ring right off Max’s finger.  And that’s game.

As the book concludes, we learn that the insurance fraud charges didn’t stick (because they weren’t true), but in the process of being closely investigated, all this other stuff Max had gotten up to started coming to light.  His business, like his life, not to mention his character, could not hold up to close scrutiny.  Hey, I didn’t say anything, it’s just a fun crime novel.

So what was it all about?  How was this about identity?  Sure, we got Anne Marie Carpinaw’s crisis, going from unhappy wife to oddly entertained heister’s moll, and she and Andy will, against all odds, somehow stay together the rest of the series, and I don’t really care.

And we got Andy Kelp himself finding a new side to his identity; more stable, effective, reliable, amorous–but still crookeder than Lombard Street in San Francisco.   And we got Herman X/Jones, back from Africa, recommitting to life on the bend, having found that thieves are often more trustworthy than politicians in a developing nation (or any nation). And we got the confused identity of Brandon Camberbridge, the lackey who thinks he’s the boss, to amuse us, and serve as a convenient plot device for the climax.

And this is all entertaining enough, adds to the general fabric of the story, but none of it really matters.  This was about John Dortmunder vs. Max Fairbanks.   Who was the ‘Superior Man’ referred to in the I-Ching?   Who is the Superior Being in any clash of personalities?   If you’re Donald Westlake, you’d say it’s the one who knows himself.  (Or herself.)

Dortmunder could never, ever, if he lived to be a hundred, think of himself as superior to anyone.  The word isn’t even in his vocabulary.   He’s been a sad sack and a loser all his life, born under an unlucky star, cursed to be Fortune’s Fool, and he doesn’t kid himself about that.  But he knows who he is, and he knows what he’s capable of.   Never overestimating himself, he can rise to the occasion when destiny calls.  However, he doesn’t waste his time trying to know the future.  Not his department.

He tells May he’s not superstitious (while she rolls her eyes a little and says nothing), but he thinks now that ring isn’t lucky after all–he’s not going to wear it again.  All its luck must have been used up by her uncle, and now it’s a  jinx–losing it meant good luck for him, bad for Max Fairbanks.  That’s his explanation for what happened, for how one of the unluckiest guys alive turned the tables on Scrooge McDuck crossed with Gladstone Gander (the Beagle Boys always go to jail in the comic books).

But really, it was more about Max.   Max may have started out knowing himself, after a fashion–knowing he was a scoundrel and a liar, knowing that nobody mattered to him but him.  And that’s fine, I suppose, in its place–as long as you don’t start taking yourself too seriously.  If there’s anything more deadly to an honest unflinching sense of self than being filthy goddam rich, it’s delusions of grandeur–and the two so often go together, you ever notice that?

The oppressed of the world (some of us vastly more oppressed than others) can’t afford delusions of grandeur.  We’re too busy trying to survive.  And now and again we do come across a Max Fairbanks. And now and again, we do manage, against all odds, to give him  one in the eye.

But most of us don’t know ourselves as well as John Dortmunder, it must be said.  The Max Fairbanks’s of the world and their delusions can be damnably persuasive.  They play on our vanities, as we tickle theirs.  So sure, why not take a preening narcissist, an ego in search of a human being, a megalomaniac who can never have enough power, a seething mass of resentment, misogyny, racism, petty tyranny, and rage, and make him the most powerful man on earth?  With nuclear weapons to boot.  What’s the worst that could happen?

The thing about Dortmunder is, he’s not a killer.  But the ‘hero’ of our next book learns, to his amazement, horror, and disturbed satisfaction, that he’s a damned efficient killer.  And he can’t afford to indulge his newfound gift on personal vendettas.  He’s got to use it for job-hunting.  And I’ll have to write a little intro to this one, before I get to reviewing it. And I’ll do that. After I bury my father. Not a metaphor.

Hey, the Ax falls on all of us, sooner or later.   That is a metaphor.  I hope.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

“Max Fairbanks,” Max Fairbanks said, “you’re a bad boy.” The milky blue eyes that gazed softly back at him in the bathroom mirror were understanding, sympathetic, even humorous; they forgave the bad boy.

“Well, I’m not gonna chase him around London and Africa, that’s for sure,” Dortmunder said.  “I can wait till he comes back this way.  Washington isn’t so far, where’s he stay in Washington?  Got another house there?”

“An apartment,” Wally said.  “In the Watergate.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Dortmunder said.  “It’s some kinda place.”

Wally and Andy looked at one another.  “He’s heard of it,” Andy said.

Wally said to Dortmunder, “It’s a great big building over by the Potomac river.  It’s partly offices and partly hotel and partly apartments.”

“Apartments are harder,” Dortmunder said.  “Doormen, probably.  Neighbors.  Could be live-in help there, a guy like that.”

Grinning, Andy said, “John?  You planning a burglary at the Watergate?”

“I’m planning to get my ring back,” Dortmunder told him, “if that’s what you mean.”

Andy still had that crooked little grin.  “No big deal,” he suggested.  “Just a little third-rate burglary at the Watergate.”

Dortmunder shrugged.  “Yeah?  So?  What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Well,” Andy said, “you could lose the Presidency.”

I’ve read every Dortmunder novel, but none of them more than once before I started this blog.  I liked the first three best, a reaction confirmed by rereading and reviewing.  Since then, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, up and down and back up again.  I love them all, but love is blind.  A critic shouldn’t be.

The Dortmunder series isn’t really about crafting perfect stories, anyway.  It’s about renewing our acquaintance with these likable rogues, keeping in touch with them across the decades, seeing how they react to social change, how they adapt to it, and how they stay the same, in spite of everything.  If now and again a genuinely terrific book crops up, something that’s brilliant in its own right, not merely as an extension of the overall franchise, that’s just gravy.

This may be the last of those anomalies.  The last genuinely great Dortmunder novel.  I won’t be able to make my final determination on that score for a while yet.  Maybe the very last one also qualifies.  But I’m so glad we’re at this one.  It’s one of my favorites.  And more timely at the moment than even Westlake could have imagined.   Though he might not have been that surprised.  When you’ve studied and chronicled human absurdity as long and avidly as he did, nothing shocks you anymore.

Starting with the fourth book in the series, struggling to find a way to keep this lucrative sideline of his going, Westlake began to experiment with making Dortmunder’s nemesis in the story a wealthy man–in that instance, an art collector/playboy, living off the wealth of industrious forebears, and at the very edge of his means.  Things don’t end well for him, but it’s only indirectly through Dortmunder’s actions that he is laid low.  Dortmunder is just trying to survive, as usual.  It’s possibly the weakest book in the series.  Back to the old drawing board.

Cutting ahead to the sixth novel, Good Behavior, the villain of the piece is a billionaire tycoon, head of a multi-national corporation, a modern-day robber baron and part-time philosopher, out to dominate South America, and then maybe the northern part as well.  No playboy, he.  Very much along the lines of the Koch Brothers, not that Westlake was thinking about them at the time.  Dortmunder isn’t out to thwart this pontificating potentate in any way, but is obligated to rescue the man’s daughter from the penthouse prison he’s confined her in for becoming a nun, so she can resume the cloistered life she’s chosen for herself.

But again, through the strange alchemy of his being, unwitting chaos-bringer that he is, Dortmunder undoes this schemer’s grand plans, leaves him vulnerable to the law he thought he stood safely above, so that by the end of the story he’ll be lucky just to stay out of  jail, let alone indulge his neo-feudalist fantasies. And I love that book even more than this one, but they never really have a satisfactory confrontation (since this rich prick is so sure of himself he could never see someone like Dortmunder as a threat).  There’s room for improvement to that aspect of the story.

And once more skipping a book in the series (Drowned Hopes is about a lot of things, but rich pricks isn’t one of them), Westlake returned to the theme in Don’t Ask–but less satisfactorily than ever.  Here the rich man is an international hotelier, looking to establish himself in eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He’s happily married, a bit of an art collector himself, and he’s not so much a villain as a tunnel-visioned tool.  He’s not even Dortmunder’s primary target.

But because he enabled Dortmunder’s true nemesis, an unscrupulous diplomat, to make a fool of Dortmunder, he also finds himself on the receiving end of a grand vendetta, and a plan so ridiculously convoluted that it’s hard to buy into.  I went into this in some detail in my review of that novel, which I found much less satisfactory on the second reading.  It’s too many mismatching ideas crammed between two covers.  Westlake doesn’t invest enough time in the billionaire to make him a very believable character.  And his real-life models–Helmsley, Hilton, etc–aren’t suitable for this kind of story.   They aren’t scurrilous enough.  You need someone truly scurrilous, someone who richly deserves to suffer Dortmunder’s wrath.  And what’s more, he needs to enjoy being scurrilous.

And Dortmunder needs to be better motivated.  Motivating the vendetta was so important to Westlake that he dismissed one of the best Parker novels, The Jugger, because he felt he hadn’t gotten that one thing right.  Badly as Dortmunder was treated in Don’t Ask, it seems a bit much for him to want to revenge himself on a man he never met, who he knows was only tangentially involved in his disgrace.

So as I said in that review, Westlake probably came away from that one knowing he’d muffed it, feeling like he still hadn’t given this idea its best possible treatment, and maybe that’s why when it came time to write the ninth Dortmunder, he went right back to that well–but with a different bucket.  Well, maybe a composite of two different buckets–you see that photo up top.  You know who those men are.  You probably couldn’t pick 99.999% of the billionaires on this planet out of a line-up at the police station (though wouldn’t that be a fun day out?), but you know them.

And you also know that one of them (the poorer by far) is notoriously litigious.  The other has rather extensive media contacts, that extend to the publishing industry.  So perhaps it was prudent to give Max Fairbanks, the billionaire in this story, an origin that doesn’t closely resemble that of any famous rich person.  Though if you squint just right, you can still make out the general outlines.

As with so many self-made men, Max had begun by marrying money.  He wasn’t Max Fairbanks yet, not back then, the century in its fifties and he in his twenties, but he’d long since stopped being his original self.  Had there ever been loving parents who had given this child a name, their own plus another, no one by the 1950’s knew anything about them, including Max, who, having found himself in London, called himself Rupert, and soon made himself indispensable to a brewer’s daughter named Elsie Brenstid.  Brenstid père, named Clement for some reason, had found young Basil Rupert far more resistable than his daughter had, until Basil demonstrated just how the Big B Brewery’s company-owned pubs could be made to produce considerably more income with just the right applications of cajolery and terror.

The marriage lasted three years, producing twin girls and an extremely satisfactory divorce settlement for Basil, Elsie being by then ready to pay anything to get away from her husband.  Basil took this grubstake off to Australia, and by the time the ship landed he had somehow become a native Englishman called Edward Wizmick, from Devon.

Elements of Mr. Murdoch’s general bio (and his name) can certainly be discerned here, but with so many variations as to make it impossible to say it’s him, even though Max is described as having a media empire, newspapers, TV stations, etc.  None of which figure much in the story at all.  Nor does Max seem to have any interest in politics, other than bribing politicians to give him what he wants in terms of tax breaks and deregulatory measures.

At the time this story begins, the most salient fact about Max Fairbanks is that he just went through a rather bruising Chapter 11 proceeding, due to having overextended himself financially.  That and the fact that he owns hotels and casinos.  And that he’s a shameless philandering bastard, with utter contempt for women, and really for everyone.  And, it should be said, a genuine knack for self-promotion.  He’s as much a celebrity as anybody who performs at his casinos.  And perhaps this explains why the paperback reprint from Warner Books (A Time Warner Company) had this on the back of it.

kic-image-0002

Because, you know, obviously.

And to hammer the point home, while there were several possible models for Max Fairbanks, only one of them was named Donald, which would make him an even more irresistible target for Westlake.   The most famous rich SOB on earth, even if his billionaire status was largely a hollow public charade, a cardboard castle covered in gold paint.  And, leave us not forget, the one most likely to sue if he felt he’d been attacked in some way.

So yes, Max is a composite.  Yes, he’s a fictional character with his own unique quirks.  Yes, he is different from Trump in many key respects (most notably in that he was not born wealthy, and yet is clearly much richer and more powerful than the real Trump ever was).  Everybody knew who Westlake was really writing about here, who he was sending up.  But nobody could ever prove it.

Westlake had learned a lesson or two from his failed attempt to publish a book with a protagonist based so directly on Bob Hope that it couldn’t be anybody else.  Don’t make it too obvious–not while the guy is still alive, anyway.  Look at all the trouble Orson Welles got into, and poor Marion Davies didn’t deserve to be portrayed like that.   Don’t get too literal about it.  Just tell the damn story.  Let reality take care of itself.  And I think I’ll follow that advice myself now.

Dortmunder is doing a job on Long Island, in a rich sleepy little town called Carrport (yet another sly little reference to Comfort Station, a long out of print book published under a pseudonym that most of his readers had never even heard of) .  His partner in crime for this job, the guy who suggested it, is Gus Brock and it involves burgling the house of Max Fairbanks.  Which is supposed to be empty, because a court has ordered this Fairbanks guy not to go there until this Chapter 11 matter has been included.  “Is this a person or a book?” Dortmunder asks.

Gus explains that although Fairbanks is technically bankrupt now, he still has huge amounts of money, all kinds of fancy possessions, but he owes a lot of people more than he wants to pay, and this is his way of stiffing his creditors, all legal-like.  Dortmunder, baffled as ever by the wiles of white collar crime, concludes “Okay, it’s just one of those cute ways rich guys have to steal from everybody without having to pick locks.”  (Is it too late to draft him for President?  Oh well, he’d probably prefer prison.)

So a judge has told Max not to be in this house, the law says he is not supposed to be there, but Max doesn’t think the law applies to him, and there’s this blonde bubblehead Max wants to bed–she’s a centerfold model, but she has dreams of getting into TV news, so she’s receptive to his advances, and there they are in bed, and they hear the burglars downstairs, and Max has a gun.  And he certainly thinks the law applies to people who are robbing him.

He only manages to catch one of them, and we all know which one that is (Gus slips away undetected).  He holds a thoroughly disgusted Dortmunder at gunpoint until the local constabulary arrive.  And then, just before they take him away in cuffs, Max notices something on the fourth proximal digit of Dortmunder’s right hand.

It’s a cheaply made ring with a strange symbol on it, which Max recognizes as the I-Ching trigram Tui–meaning The Joyous Lake.  His own lucky sign, and the name of his company.  Max is a believer.   (And we’re going to get a lot of I-Ching mumbo-jumbo in this book, just like we got our fill of Astrology in A Jade in Aries.  Westlake probably didn’t believe in either sytem, but he believed in luck.  It’s a story. Go with it.)

The ring had been delivered to Dortmunder and May’s apartment days before.  It belonged to a late uncle of hers, a denizen of the race tracks.  It was, the lawyer’s enclosed note explains, his lucky ring.  He left it to May in his will, but it won’t fit her.  May makes a diplomatically worded suggestion to Dortmunder–

“Skill you’ve got,” she hastened to assure him.  “Adaptability you’ve got, professionalism you’ve got, good competent partners you’ve got. Luck you could use a little. Try it on.”

He does.  It fits perfectly.  And this is the kind of luck it gave him.  He’s going to  jail, probably for a long time, possibly for life.  But hey, them’s the breaks when you’re in his line of work. Can’t blame anybody for that.  Not until Max Fairbanks points at the ring and says it belongs to him.  This thief took it.  He must give it back, now.  The Carrport cops, knowing who Fairbanks is, insist Dortmunder take it off and hand it to the smugly smiling billionaire.  Enjoying his little joke so much.   Not knowing or caring who he’s playing it on.  Not comprehending the psychic chain reaction he has triggered.

Dortmunder was very very very angry.

To be arrested was one thing, to be convicted, sent to prison, given a record, made to wear ill-fitting denim, forced to live in close proximity to thoroughly undesirable citizens, listen to lectures, take shop, eat slop, all part of the same thing, all within the known and accepted risks of life.  But to be made fun of?  To be humiliated?  To be robbed…by a householder?

He was ready to go quietly, to accept his fate, but this he can never accept.  This is one practical joke too many.  Max Fairbanks must pay.  Dortmunder wants that ring back.  Inspired by his rage, he becomes the Houdini of Crime, using the zipper tab from his own trousers to unscrew the window of the locked patrol car, jumping through that window, hands still cuffed, making his getaway before the fat suburban fuzz can register what’s going on.

He avoids the ensuing dragnet.  He breaks into a hardware store, gets the cuffs off.  He goes back to the Fairbanks house and strips it of all major valuables (a substantial haul, that Gus Brock will get no split from).  He makes his way home in Max Fairbanks’ own Lexus.  He fences the loot for 28 grand.  When he dumps it on the kitchen table, he tells May he’s got some bad news–all he can see is that ring.   There is nothing else for him now.

And he begins to make his plans.  And doesn’t immediately process the fact that his perennially bad luck has somehow–changed.  For this book, at least, Dortmunder makes even Parker look like a second-rater.  That 28 g’s is nothing compared to what’s coming.

Kelp, like all of Dortmunder’s other frequent string members, finds the story of Dortmunder getting robbed by the guy he was going to rob hilarious.  But he is taken aback by the unusual degree of focused intensity he sees in his friend’s eyes–and he can smell a good thing a mile away.  Dortmunder scored big off this guy, and there’s more where that came from.

He calls up Wally Knurr, their computer nerd pal from Drowned Hopes, who has not changed a bit, except that now he lives in Dudson Corners with Myrtle Street and her mom. (We’re told Myrtle is his ‘lady friend’, and she is a lady, and I’m sure they are good friends, and please don’t try to tell me it goes any further than that.  This isn’t The Big Bang Theory.  Wally is still five feet tall and just as wide.  Jimmy Rushing would stand a better chance with Myrtle, and he died in 1972.)

Wally doesn’t want any part of a violent revenge scheme, but properly reassured that Dortmunder only wants what is rightfully his, he can easily track Fairbanks online by hacking into TUI’s corporate database.  Max moves around a lot, and therefore so does that ring.  So Dortmunder will need to be able to anticipate his movements in order to get him.

He’ll need some help to get at his nemesis–and as word of his big Carrport score gets around, everybody suddenly wants to work with him again.  And when he drops the stolen Lexus off at Maximilian’s Used Cars (where all the best car thieves go), he gets a much better deal from that Max than he ever got before.  Yes, something’s definitely different about Dortmunder.  And it’s not the anger anymore.

The real fury that had driven Dortmunder on the eventful night, that had fueled his brilliance and expertise in escaping from those cops, was gone now; you can’t stay white-hot mad at somebody forever, no matter what they did.  Between the stuff he’d sold to Stoon, and the unexpectedly large return on the car, he’d cleared almost thirty grand from his encounter with Max Fairbanks, which was probably about three thousand times what the ring was worth.  So did he really want to pursue this vendetta, chase down some jet-setting billionaire who,as Andy had pointed out, would usually be surrounded by all kinds of security?  Or was he ahead now, enough ahead to forget it, get on with his life?

He can’t let this go.  It’s not about getting mad, it’s about getting even, and he can’t do that until he’s got the ring back.  Until he’s undone what Fairbanks did to him.  It’s Dortmunder’s equivalent of that button in Parker’s head you never want to push, because he will just keep coming after you until he’s negated the insult, erased it.  Parker does that by killing whoever pushed the button.  Dortmunder, born in Dead Indian Illinois, will settle for counting coup on the offending party.  A symbolic victory. That will come with a lot more cold hard cash into the bargain.  You can’t eat symbols.

And Max Fairbanks can’t catch a break, all of a sudden.  He had convinced the Carrport cops to keep the burglary quiet, but once John escaped them, that was no longer an option.  The judge overseeing his Chapter 11 proceeding is furious he violated that court order to stay away from the Carrport house.  So he just takes the house away–it’s going to be sold off to pay some of Max’s debts.  Max loved that house, and his rage is incalculable.  He’d like to strangle Dortmunder and the judge both (and the judge isn’t even Mexican).

The more we see of Max Fairbanks, the more we perceive that under his bad boy charm, he’s got a vicious uncontrollable temper.  A button in his own head, you  might say–that gets pushed every time anyone fights back, tells him no, forces him to act like he’s subject to any authority other than his own boundless hungers.   And the angrier he gets, the stupider he gets.  I can’t do that “Why does this sound so familiar?” thing I do, since I’ve already explained why it’s so familiar.   Mr. Westlake was doing his homework.  Would we had done ours a lot sooner.

But this is a comedy, and there’s a limit to how far he wants to push the parallels.  There is someone Max Fairbanks fears, and that’s his wife Lutetia.  Described as having an abundance of black hair and an aggressive way of walking that makes her look like she’s about to crush someone, she knows full well that Max is not faithful to her, but she’ll tolerate it as long as it doesn’t get in the papers, and she doesn’t get any STD’s.  She’s got lawyers of her own, and they are prepared to take Max out hard if he gives her just cause.  She’s not entirely unfond of him, which only shows there’s no accounting for taste.

(She’s also very aware of that temper of his–watching her handle him is a bit like watching a lion tamer act.  She’s the boss, she’s got the chair and whip thing down, but he could still turn and maul her at any moment.  Or anyone else in his way.)

So Max has to stay in New York, and of course he’s going to stay at her palatial apartment above the N-Joy Theater/Hotel in Times Square, a jewel in the crown of his media empire, currently hosting a production of Desdemona!, the feminist musical rewrite of Othello, complete with happy ending, culminating in the show-stopping number “Here’s the Handkerchief!”  (Mr. Westlake not entirely thrilled with Broadway in the 90’s, and it hasn’t improved a whit since then, but it keeps some people I know employed, and the tourists seem happy).

Dortmunder has his opportunity, and he and Kelp case the joint, and for reasons unknown, Andy Kelp gets his own romantic subplot.  Honestly, I think you’d have to say this is the only romantic subplot in the entire series.  The books have many seemingly felicitous domestic relationships, but don’t tend to dwell on them much.  Dortmunder met May between the first and second novels.  Tiny Bulcher and J.C. Taylor became an item between chapters in Good Behavior, and we never saw much of them as a couple afterwards.  Whatever’s going on between Wally Knurr and Myrtle Street, I do not want to know about it.

But starting with the job at the N-Joy Theater, we get a very extended subplot dealing with Kelp’s oddball romance with Anne Marie Carpinaw, who became a regular character in the Dortmunder books, and the only one she ever really contributed much to was this one.  Because she’s a midwestern congressman’s daughter (useful for a later subplot), and her marriage just broke up, and she’s pretty, and nice, and not really that interesting, but she’s looking for something different, and you have to give Andy this much–he’s something different.

But do I want to do a whole lot of analysis of that relationship and its significance in the overall scheme of things?  I do not.  They meet at the hotel bar, her husband has left her, Andy likes what he sees, and she figures what the hell.  And I figure about the same.  Let’s move on.

Dortmunder figures out a way into the Fairbanks apartment.  It’s fun for us to read about. It’s also fun for the string of pros who accompany him–Wally Whistler is the lockman (it’s fun to read about what absent-minded antics he’s been up to since last we saw him).  Gus Brock comes along for the ride–he was perturbed Dortmunder didn’t offer him a cut of the Carrport job Gus had masterminded, even though Gus turned out not to have been such a mastermind in this regard.  Dortmunder says he did all the work on that job, so he gets all the swag, but Gus can come along on this new job, just to show there’s no hard feelings.

By the time they leave the apartment, crammed with all kinds of priceless arts & crafts that a good fence will know how to put a price on, Gus says he and Dortmunder are square. They take it all out in the maid’s cart, and stow it in the room Dortmunder reserved for himself and May with a bogus credit card obtained from Arnie Albright

(Worth noting: Before she prudently leaves the hotel, prior to the heist taking place, May starts laying the groundwork for a close friendship with Anne Marie, which will remain a thing across the remaining books.)

Gus is happy, Wally Whistler is happy, Kelp is ecstatically happy.  Only Dortmunder is not happy, because Max Fairbanks left–with Dortmunder’s ring–just as they were breaking in through the service elevator.  Lutetia insisted on going with Max, who is taking a last nostalgic look at the Carrport house (so Max won’t get to bring any more floozies there). They had a nice time there, almost like a real married couple. So she’s happy–until she gets back to her looted apartment.  Then she’s very decidedly unhappy.  And this means Max Fairbanks is unhappy.  And starting to get a little scared.  How is this happening to him?  And with his lucky ring still firmly ensconced on his finger!

And to make things worse, NYPD Police Detective, Bernard Klematsky (Andy’s old friend at the police department, who we’ve met in two previous books) is interviewing him almost as if he, Max Fairbanks, is a suspect in the burglary of his own home!  The Carrport police never dared suggest any such thing with regards to the burglary of his other home, but the NYPD is not a small town police force, and they don’t impress so easy.

Max doesn’t come out and ask Detective Klematsky “Do you know who I am?”, but he’s very obviously thinking it.  And the fact is, there are some things relating to these incidents that he can’t really explain to the detective, which just makes everything seem so much more suspicious than it really is.  And Klematsky is well aware, like everybody else on the planet, that Max Fairbanks just declared bankruptcy.

The absurdity of Klematsky’s suspicions, now that Max finally understood what they were, was so extreme that no wonder it hadn’t occurred to him what horsefeathers filled the Klematsky brain.  His own wealth and, in this instance, comparative innocence, combined with the distraction of thoughts about the burglar, had kept him from grasping Klematsky’s implications before this.  Now, astounded, horrified, amused, pointing at himself, Max said, “Do you think I committed these burglaries?  Hired them done?  For the insurance?”

“I don’t think anything yet,” Klematsky said.  “I’m just looking at the scenarios.”

“You should be looking at a padded cell,” Max told him.  “You think because I’m in bankruptcy court–?  Do you really believe I’m poor?  You–You–I could buy and sell a thousand of you!”

“Maybe you could buy and sell a thousand,” Klematsky said, unruffled, “but they wouldn’t be me.”

Well said, and Detective Klematsky is certainly a keen judge of character, but he is barking up the wrong tree here.  And normally, Max Fairbanks doesn’t have to worry much about the law, even when he really is breaking it.  Something’s gone wrong with his world, and he can’t understand it.   This kind of thing just doesn’t happen to him.  He’s been bragging to everybody about how he stole this thief’s ring right off his finger, and it is just now beginning to dawn on him that might have been a mistake–but Max Fairbanks doesn’t make mistakes.  He certainly doesn’t admit to them.  He just keeps doubling down, until he wins.  It’s always worked for him before.

And now he’s got to head for Washington, to face a congressional hearing.  Nothing dangerous for him in that, he’s just trying to get them to get rid of this entertainment luxury tax that is hampering him in his endless pursuit of wealth creation (who he is creating said wealth for, and how, is of course not relevant to the matter at hand).  He sarcastically remarks that maybe the congressmen broke into his apartment on his behalf.  “Wouldn’t surprise me,” Klematsky responds.  Well, it would be surprising if they didn’t get caught.

If Max Fairbanks is going to testify before congress, the world knows about it.  If the world knows about it, so does Wally Knurr, and well in advance of most people.  If Wally Knurr knows, certain other people know as well.  And if Frank Capra had made heist films, this would have been one of his best.  Mr. Dortmunder Goes to Washington.  He’s going to show G. Gordon Liddy and those Cubans how you do a little burglary at the Watergate.  We’re just about halfway through the book here.  I’ll try not to filibuster too long over Part 2.  Enjoy the debate.  Sheahright.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels